Chaise, 2013, by Julie Blackmon © The artist. Courtesy photo-eye Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Blackmon’s third monograph, Midwest Materials, was published this year by Radius Books.
Johnny Cash, Pray for Me
By Casie Dodd
Every afternoon, I sing my daughter to sleep with my own lullaby versions of the same two Johnny Cash classics. “I Walk the Line” smoothly gives way to “Jackson” as she closes her eyes and nestles in for a nap. When she resists, I might segue into an old-fashioned hymn briefly to settle her down, but I still always pad out of the room humming about infidelity.
Johnny’s music, biography, and spirit have profoundly shaped my motherhood and liminal sense of faith over the past three years. What began with the realization during my first child’s newborn phase that “Folsom Prison Blues” calmed him like nothing else (there’s something about that steady bass, I guess) turned into a regular rhythm of my lonely postpartum days. When my husband was away at work and I clocked nearly twelve hours on my own most days—alone in a huge city with a clingy, sensitive baby—Johnny kept us company.
My son has always been spirited, but from the beginning, he seemed to find a sort of intuitive comfort in music linked to his roots. Our family is from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and the mid-South region; I grew up there but relocated to Chicago with my husband to start what we thought could become a new life. As our family grew, that option became more and more untenable. Despite our Midwestern exile—and a lack of particular interest in country music—even in pregnancy, I was drawn to Johnny’s oeuvre as a primal link to the place I came from. But after my son was born, he screamed constantly (at least, it seemed that way); we couldn’t get him to stop except when music was playing. There’s a video somewhere of one incident where he was shrieking at my grandmother’s house—only to be calmed instantly once he heard the opening to “Folsom Prison Blues.” When Johnny said “Hello,” my son listened. Despite the often-rowdy rhythms of so many of his songs, Johnny seemed to communicate something to my son I could not yet translate myself. That effect is not by accident. Cash himself said of his early sound in songs like “Hey Porter”: “Everything coming out [at the time] was the same; the arrangements were so predictable, and I didn’t want to sound like anybody else. I put paper in the strings of my guitar to get that…sound and a beat that was so bare and sparse, it sounded like a train with two wheels gone.” As a mother of young children, I can often relate to that train.
Over time, Cash also came to speak to me on a deeper personal level. During this same period, I was working my way—with some reluctance—toward a Catholic conversion, officially forsaking my evangelical heritage. My religion was (and still is) a complicated part of my identity that I’ve struggled to reconcile with the various cracks in my humanity. In an interesting way, Johnny’s abiding faith in a Baptist tradition—one cut from the same cloth that I was trying to leave behind—helped me reconcile the parts worth holding on to with the tradition to which I felt called. There’s something in his voice that evokes a confidence mingled with humility: an awareness that he can be saved from anything despite everything that he may do to strain that grace. That sound—the timbre, the depth, the conviction—made a home in me. It gave me comfort as I listened to and sang the songs that testify to a love that hopes never to waver despite the knowledge that it will eventually. In that respect, “I Walk the Line” became a sort of shorthand for “Amazing Grace” that reminded me I could still love my family (and God) fully even as I seemed constantly to be failing both. The fevers that will come can still be washed away in the blood once more. I knew the biography behind those lyrics, and perhaps that intuitively made “Jackson” the natural follow-up for me; I nearly always experience one song alongside the other. I barely know any Catholics—at least on a level that would make talking about such things possible—but I know the wounds that cultivate that kind of voice. The brokenness. But he just kept singing, all the way to the end. He knew it was the only way to keep going.
Of course, you can’t really talk about Johnny—in any context, but especially in the context of faith—without talking about gospel music. One of my favorite videos of his is an early live performance of the spiritual “I Was There When It Happened” with the Tennessee Two. It is hard to articulate the emotional logic at play in how profoundly this song comforts me. For those unfamiliar, the song basically affirms the evangelical concept of salvation: a firm conviction that we can (and should) pinpoint a single moment in time when we “accepted” Jesus once and for all as our Savior. As someone who carries deep wounds from the theology and all the cultural underpinnings of this song, I’m perplexed by my willingness to embrace it when Johnny sings it to me. Part of it goes back to sound. Marshall Grant, one of the Tennessee Two, spoke about how they stuck with that same, consistent sound together from the beginning: “The first eight bars that we ever played together—that Johnny Cash sound was right there.” I have to confess that it’s tempting to project a spiritual significance onto this statement. They knew the gift they had received, and they simply made it their own. Johnny found a way to take what he was given and infuse it with something startlingly new, even as he remained loyal to the source of that music: the gospel. But maybe another explanation for what makes his performance so powerful has something to do with the look on his face in this video. Other people have described his demeanor—his whole persona—better than me, but I see something that communicates the kind of grief in knowing you can believe something without being able to live it wholeheartedly. The way he encourages you to “go get your burdens lifted” while his eyes keep holding that same half-pained tint. One truth that Johnny made inhabitable for me was how purely and ineffably music can translate things we know to be real, but can’t find a way to say. In the sound—that voice—one soul speaks to another.
During the obsessive and isolating stage of parenting an infant, this sense of kinship with Johnny became a compulsion. I sought out all his albums. I curated playlists (usually driven by a lot of the earlier hits) and listened to them every day. I watched Johnny Cash documentaries and other videos of his performances; I read his fictionalized account of the Apostle Paul’s conversion. I bought a Christmas album on CD to make sure we’d have his music handy on the long drive back to Oklahoma for the holidays, where streaming music can be spotty along those mid-Southern interstates. At home, when my son wouldn’t nap, I cranked up the music loudly enough to translate my own screams into song. Sometimes, the upbeat rhythms helped avert a crisis and distracted us into happier moods; other times, they channeled my rage and gave me an outlet to avoid doing something I might regret.
For it was also during this season that I was moving perilously deep into postpartum depression and struggling to work out how to see my way through. Why was I so angry? Where do I start? It is astonishingly difficult to be a mother without any support system. It is even more difficult to be a person of active faith without a meaningful community. It is devastating when the support system you once had has been taken away from you. Mix all that up with maternal hormones and a predisposition toward mood disorders and things can get pretty dark. As much as I felt compelled to move toward Catholicism, I could not feel completely at ease about it or make peace with the loss that it required. In some primal sense, I needed to cling to the roots of the faith that had raised me, which now became translated through the lens of motherhood. As I took care of my children and learned what it meant to care fully for another person, I experienced a sort of liminal space that seemed shared, in some spiritual way, with the women who raised me. My maternal grandmother—a lifelong Southern Baptist and as anti-Catholic as they come—who died several years before I became a mother, became a sort of real presence to me in the lonely late-night hours when sleep was impossible. I felt her with me, whether in the silence or through the music. Johnny helped me reconnect to the earnestness that infuses my memories of her. It was incomplete—always seeing through the glass darkly. And it also took me to a painfully depressed place that could have become dangerous. But when I was most actively trying to make sense of all that, Johnny was there too. He kept us safe. He moved seamlessly from prison jams or “One Piece at a Time” to spirituals like “Peace in the Valley,” embracing a fully lower-c catholic perspective that believes anything could be made holy: even parenthood.
How does it feel to listen to a Johnny Cash song? How does the body respond? From the first notes, his voice, his hum, grabs you. It enters you. It tells you you’re not alone. The guitar riffs play off his own little improvisations in this magical way that I have found myself enacting as a sort of liturgy the longer I listen to these songs. I find it hard to imagine anyone stays entirely still through a whole song. For me, it tends to start with my head—riding the waves of those chords. I realize several more beats in that I’ve started snapping my fingers. I attempt to mimic that inimitable cadence of his mid-Southern croon: a sound that is forever part of my own voice. I pace around our noisy Arkansas house (where we’ve re-settled our roots)—dancing with my children. Both can walk on their own now, and they ask for Johnny themselves sometimes when it’s time for music. I officially converted to Catholicism the same year Johnny found me, but it continues to be a complicated though unavoidable part of who I am. Like Johnny in some ways, I tend to feel more comfortable somewhere between heaven and earth. His rhythms have stitched themselves under my skin, like my children’s DNA running through my veins. It is sacramental. The Christian tradition clings to this idea of a “communion of saints.” Johnny felt the same way about his deceased brother, whom he saw as a lifelong minister to him from beyond the grave. I’ll never forget one day driving anxiously down Lake Shore Drive—my infant son shrieking endlessly in the background—as “A Boy Named Sue” tried to drown him out. I looked up at the skyline, said aloud, “Johnny, pray for me,” and managed to keep the car straight one more day.