Saturday, February 20, 2010

Exegesis of Cash

It doesn't seem to make sense that "Walk the Line" has become the signature song from Johnny Cash. Some song had to and why not that one, right? But there is usually a reason for these large, strange collective decisions-- or, if not a reason, as such, a rightness, a significance.

I woke up-- was wrenched from sleep-- last night to Johnny singing 'Hurt.' Yeah, that's just how things are going these days. I needed to hear it and sleep has always been 'just what keeps me alive;' has never offered protection, certainly not from wounds or their healing, and so I greeted the song as an old friend who has come to shame you but to whom you are grateful for it. So this evening has been devoted to his songs, including "Walk the Line" which I usually only half-hear.

"I find it very very easy to be true."

It is rare that we are able to speak honestly. Language is built upon this basic need, to speak near, around, through, and to truth, but not truth itself. "Walk the Line" seems like a simple devotional to love-- probably earthly but every earthly love becomes allegorical to the divine by squinting. But why did he repeat 'very?' Truth needs no ornament, no hyperbole, no emphasis. The second very is a give away-- he doesn't find it easy to be true.

"I find myself alone when each day's through"

Speaking of the distance of the lovers, and the hermit-life her absence condemns him to. It is possible for a man to do this-- but it is not likely and for some men, nearly impossible. An accusal, also, of her who has left him alone when each day's through.

The song is riddled with other impossibilities-- "I keep my eyes wide open all the time." "For you I know I'd even try to turn the tide" is very powerful and very telling. He is helpless "I know I'd even" unto death, for what happens if you fail to turn the tide?

"And happiness I've known proves that it's right" I've known-- not know.

The central metaphor becomes even stranger in this light. Walk the line. I used to be able to sprint down the iron rail of a railroad track-- but even with little feet and a child's singular focus, I never got farther than a half mile. "Because you're mine" is not the beginning of a causal statement, it is a desperate plea.

Be mine. Come back. Save me. No man can walk the line. I will betray you, not tomorrow, but maybe the day after.

They came together briefly-- they are now apart. Life is false and worthless without her, but he will falter, nonetheless, into that life in part to punish her with his debasement. Which is why the sweetness and hopeful innocence of the lyrics and the delivery is so touching. It's a fairy tale that he wants and almost believes can be true.

And like many fairy tales, it's also a threat.

Keep a close watch.


jeremy said...

Walk The Line became the signature Johnny Cash tune after it was used as the title, and theme, of an Oscar-winning film.

Before the movie, I had the sense that his fans thought of him mostly as the man who wore black to stand up for the underdogs and that his signature song was Man in Black. Even today there are many of his core fans who still think this way. His birthday is this Friday and here's a fan suggesting we put on some black:

After the movie, which really catapulted him back to the mainstream, he was the man who walked the line (kicked drugs and booze) for a woman. The movie defined the song as being about the redemptive power of love: He's Walking the Line for June Carter.

But, as is pointed out here (, he actually wrote the song for his first wife. Which makes your interpretation make a lot more sense than the one the film gives it.

But I would say that Walk the Line is primarily about obsession. The stated object of the obsession is a lover -- with lines line 'I'm a fool for you,' and 'because you're mine,' being cliche ways to talk about that. But if you do not assume that this lover is a person, then it could be a sublimated tale of addiction; he was an amphetamine user, after all, which makes the stuff about keeping his eyes open all the time more plausible.

Also, it may be hard to tell the truth, but it's 'easy to be true' to your addictions.

Generally speaking, though, to 'walk the line' means to behave in a way that doesn't put you on the wrong side of something. It's about being careful, uncontroversial. So, even if you assume that it's a human lover he's speaking to, rather than a tale of the redemptive power of love, it is perhaps about the repressive power of love. And hence the line about keeping a 'close watch on this heart of mine.' The threat, to me, seems mostly inwardly directed.

Whim said...

Great comment! I especially like linking 'eyes wide open' to his speed habit. I agree that the song can be powerfully read as an internal drama-- but I think the form of it-- that of a letter, encompasses both. When we write a letter, or make a public confession, we move inwardly and outwardly at the same time. Each outward sign of forgiveness or devotion must be matched with an inward movement, else the whole endeavor falls apart.

I'll wear some black on Friday.