The Politics of Empathy: On the Life and Music of Johnny Cash

Michael Stewart Foley Looks at the Man in Black’s Engagement with Social and Cultural Issues

The only time I’ve ever set foot in a high-end auction house was to see the estate of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash sold off in 2004 at Sotheby’s. As an early career historian, working at a public university in the most expensive city in America, I could never hope to afford to take home a prized country music artifact. But I was there for research.

The cavernous, half-empty auction hall reminded me of a federal courtroom just before the start of a trial. People got serious quickly. Bidders were well prepared, having scoured the catalog and toured in advance the de facto museum exhibition of Cash artifacts that Sotheby’s had hosted over the last several weeks. This ain’t no yard sale, I thought. But, really, what kind of insight was I going to get on Cash by watching well-to-do fans bid on one pair after another of his cowboy boots? I considered leaving.

Before I could push my chair back, a handsome middle-aged couple came in, practically breathless, and sat down next to me. Turns out they had just gotten married and were looking to score a piece of country music history. When the woman asked me what I planned to try for, I somewhat sheepishly admitted to being there not as a bidder but as a historian. That piqued her interest, so I told her a little about my work on the Vietnam War. I started to say that Cash’s 1969 Madison Square Garden concert had drawn my attention, not only as a fan but also as a historian, because Cash had spoken about the war and about peace from the stage. She abruptly cut me off: “But anybody who knows anything about Johnny Cash knows he was a Republican, right?” she challenged. “I mean, he was a patriot!”

“Yes, he was a patriot,” I replied, but I pointed out that some people think he was pretty liberal, what with that whole wearing black “for the poor and the beaten down” line from “Man in Black.” “Oh, sure,” she replied, “he was a Christian—he cared about people. But he was definitely a Republican. You’ve heard ‘Ragged Old Flag,’ right?” We debated in friendly fashion for a couple of more minutes, with me trying to explain how not all Johnny Cash fans hear the same message in a song like “Ragged Old Flag,” until her new husband returned to drag her off to look at some of June Carter’s jewelry.

That passionate Johnny Cash fan at Sotheby’s—I never got her name—may not have thought much of my research project, but she had done me an enormous favor. She had gotten me thinking about why no one really wrote about Johnny Cash’s politics—at least, not in a way that made sense of it. How could we explain such a wide range of political identification with Cash, with self-defined liberals and conservatives claiming him in equal measure? And why do most observers describe his politics as inconsistent, even paradoxical?

What I’ve learned over the last 16 years I’ve spent thinking about these questions is that Cash’s politics can seem at first like a moving target in a hall of mirrors. Most of the time there appears to be multiple Johnny Cashes, each one trapped in its own web of mythology. Most famously, there is the redeemed sinner Johnny Cash, the one familiar to anyone who saw Joaquin Phoenix play him in the Hollywood biopic, Walk the Line: an Arkansas farm boy who comes out of poverty to enjoy fantastic success alongside fellow Sun Records star, Elvis Presley, only to engage in years of drug-fueled self-sabotage that destroys his marriage and nearly kills him before, by the grace of God and June Carter, he gets his shit together, records a live album at Folsom Prison, and becomes a superstar. It’s the classic rise-fall-rise narrative, with all of the ingredients of a big-budget feature-film version of a VH1 Behind the Music episode.

But there’s also the “walking contradiction” Johnny Cash: “partly truth and partly fiction,” to quote his friend Kris Kristofferson, who wrote those lines in a song about himself, only to have Cash and others assume they were about Cash. This myth is especially hard to untangle when Cash’s politics come up, given that he did seem to contradict himself by both opposing the Vietnam War and expressing support for President Richard Nixon’s handling of the war. Or that he supported civil rights, but also spoke of the courage of Confederate soldiers. Or given that he was a God-fearing Christian family man who felt more comfortable in a prison playing to his “fellow miscreants.” And so on and so on.

No systematic analysis of Cash’s actions can conclude that he was “nonpolitical.”

And then there is the blank-screen Johnny Cash: the one on whom we project our own identities, political and otherwise. Like my auction debate partner, we fans have a habit of finding something in Cash’s lyrics and image that resonates with us and assuming that he is just like us in every other way. Or we see him as his own son claims to: “nonpolitical, and a patriot with no public political party affiliation.” But that’s just another of the Johnny Cashes, the one who brings everyone together, who would not risk alienating any segment of his audience by embracing a political identity. He could not be a contradiction because he was “nonpolitical.”

No systematic analysis of Cash’s actions can conclude that he was “nonpolitical.” Johnny Cash not only devoted much of his career to the pressing political questions of his lifetime, but he was also remarkably consistent in the way he did so. If it has been difficult to read him all these years, it has been because we have been looking at him through the wrong lens. In 1971, when Cash stood at the peak of his popularity and influence, the political scientist Robert Levine reported on American citizens behaving in ways experts labeled contradictory. “Voters and citizens are individuals,” Levine cautioned, “holding views that they believe to be consistent and changing their views along lines they believe to be consistent even though political theorists may not agree.”

It made little sense, therefore, to insist on using binary labels to categorize Americans into this or that political group—liberal or conservative, hawk or dove, patriot or protester—but you wouldn’t know it from the way we talk about American politics. Like most Americans, then and now, Johnny Cash did not experience politics ideologically, or participate in political discourse in ways that would satisfy an ideologue. But that doesn’t mean that his stances were not based upon deep reflection or intellectual sophistication. Quite the contrary.

Johnny Cash practiced what I call a politics of empathy. He came to his political positions based on his personal experience, often guided by his own emotional and visceral responses to the issues. In the same way that social movement theorists have written for years now about the role of emotion and storytelling in mobilizing for one cause or another, Americans often engage political questions on the basis of feeling, not doctrine. It makes no sense to apply a one-size-fits-all standard to explaining a person’s politics when we know that we are not all one size—that our personas, political and otherwise, are forged in the crucibles of our own experiences. Naturally, that makes it hard on those who set or accept the parameters of normative political categories. Johnny Cash seemed unintelligible (or illegible) only insofar as his observers tried to apply conventional political labels to him. As soon as we throw those terms away, though, Cash comes into view as one of the most deeply engaged political artists of his age.

To be sure, to approach political questions only from the perspective of one’s own experience would be pretty limiting. Our knowledge and understanding may derive partly from our own experience, but most of us need to draw on other sources to supplement it. Johnny Cash may have seen Black convicts chained together, building the roads or levees in Mississippi County, Arkansas, but he was a white Southerner who had never worked on a chain gang. He may have thought for a long time that he had some Cherokee DNA in his bloodline, but he had never been forced, with his people, off his land or otherwise betrayed by the federal government. He had been locked up overnight a handful of times but had never been sent to prison. And he served in the Air Force, but not in Vietnam.

Yet, he wrote and spoke movingly about all of these things—racism, Native rights, prison life, and the Vietnam War, among other subjects—because he possessed the documentarian’s unwavering fascination with social realism. He obsessively researched the subjects of the concept albums that he recorded in the early to mid-1960s, trying, as he later recalled, “to get at the reality behind some of our country’s history.”

In each case, he came to these matters initially at the prompting of his own experience, but he was not satisfied until he felt like he understood the actual lives of those he studied. Cash thus followed a well-established folk music tradition, like that embodied by singers such as Odetta (of whom he was a great fan) or Peter La Farge (who was his friend), that insisted on authenticity and truth-telling. But he got there largely on his own, not through the inducements of the cultural left we associate with the 1930s and beyond. Nothing influenced him as much as the field recordings of John and Alan Lomax.

Those recordings, especially Blues in the Mississippi Night and the Southern Folk Heritage Series, which captured not only the voices of singers such as Big Bill Broonzy and Vera Hall but also the background sounds of prison life, levee camps, Cajun bayous, and Appalachian hillbilly stomps, transported Cash to other worlds, opened them up enough that he could better relate to, and empathize with, the people they documented. As an artist, Cash acted like the best documentarian photographers—Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, each of whom preserved the dignity of their subjects, no matter how poor or desperate their circumstances. that same commitment to the empathy of social realism anchored Cash’s public citizenship. It also made him a curator of the American experience itself.

By uncovering Cash’s politics of empathy over his lifetime, it’s possible to chart the development of one of America’s foremost public citizens. Particularly in the 1960s and 70s, when the term “public citizen” was most associated with the crusading consumer advocate Ralph Nader and the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization he founded of the same name, Johnny Cash, widely regarded as the “rough cut king of country music,” used his standing in American culture to try to make a difference on the most pressing public issues of the day. But unlike Nader, he was not much of a crusader. He had to grow into the role, becoming increasingly comfortable across the 1960s until, by the time he got his network television show in 1969, he had secured his standing as a prominent political artist. Cash, without really intending it, fashioned a new model of public citizenship, based on a politics of empathy. It’s an approach that’s relevant in our own times and yet has been largely misunderstood because it’s not as straightforward as electoral politics. Instead of toeing a party line, it looks more like following a series of dance steps only the dancer knows.

Cash, without really intending it, fashioned a new model of public citizenship, based on a politics of empathy.

We can understand Cash’s politics best through his work—his concept albums, his live performances, and especially the appearances on his televised variety show. The Johnny Cash Show, airing weekly on ABC from 1969 to 1971, became his primary pulpit for addressing political questions facing a polarized nation. Some weeks, he would use a monologue toward the end of an episode to speak directly to an issue; other weeks, a duet with a guest artist provided an opportunity to weigh in on another topic.

Frequently, he employed his Americana-tinged “Ride This Train” segment to draw viewers into a subject that often he framed in political terms. For the three seasons it aired, the show was a hit. The politics of empathy Cash practiced clearly appealed to a vast, diverse audience. “The young like him because he has the ring of authenticity and supports social causes,” Life reported, and “for people over 30 he sounds a note of sanity in a mixed-up musical world—they can tap their feet and understand his words.” Cash’s records outsold the Beatles, and his life was the subject of a documentary film, five mass-market biographies, and countless magazine profiles. He seemed as permanent in American life as the Lincoln Memorial.

Cash’s politics of empathy should not seem so illegible, either, because it reflected certain timeworn American ideals. It was fundamentally democratic and inclusive. He never trafficked in grievance and rarely expressed bitterness when he related to others. Since he based his politics primarily on his experiences, his empathy could take different forms—at times, deeply personal and intimate, at others, more like a kind of solidarity; on still other occasions, it came from a determined effort to understand the lives of others with whom he had no shared experiences. “I have a feeling for human nature in difficult situations,” he said about a year before he died. “Don’t know why, but I always have.” In its inclusivity, Cash’s empathy transcended ideology—it was supra-partisan.

Johnny Cash was not some kind of ideal American citizen (whatever that might be). There were times in his life, particularly when his drug addiction had such a grip on him, when he behaved like a pretty poor excuse for a citizen. And one could argue that even when he reached the top of his public citizen game on his television show, he could have done better—been more forceful on certain issues, less trite on others, and more inclusive of certain groups. Still, he tried, earnestly, to use his public standing for the public good, which is not always easy for a prominent celebrity or entertainer to do.

Too frequently, the public reacts to the politically engaged artist or actress with disdain, taking them to be a sanctimonious abuser of their privileged place in public life. “Stick to singing!” or “Go back to acting!” the idea that fame makes people less qualified to speak on political issues is connected to the misplaced expectation that everyone—all of us—should have a coherent politics, identifiable, and easily labeled, especially if we are going to open our mouths and share an opinion. But in the same way that a truck driver, teacher, or doctor expects to be able to do their job and also fulfill their duties as citizens, why shouldn’t an artist, actress, or musician do the same? “A nation’s artists and musicians have a particular place in its social and political life,” Bruce Springsteen has observed.

The fact that Springsteen has, in his words, “tried to write songs that speak to our pride and criticize our failures,” suggests that he studied Johnny Cash closely, for Cash, like Woody Guthrie before him, modeled that kind of citizenship before Springsteen ever picked up a guitar.

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Citizen Cash

Excerpted from Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash by Michael Stewart Foley. Copyright © 2021. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Michael Stewart Foley
Michael Stewart Foley
Michael Stewart Foley is a historian of American political culture. He is the author or editor of seven other books, including the prizewinning Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War, Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s, and the 33 1/3 book on punk band Dead Kennedys’ political masterpiece, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.





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