Saturday, July 16, 2005

A Sacred Song Speaks a Thousand Words (The Impact of Johnny Cash's Last Christian Songs)

As a great fan of Johnny Cash (since 1969), I was struck by some comments concerning the sacred songs CD of his posthumous box set, Unearthed (2003). This brings home again the potential dramatic effect of artistic attempts to share the gospel and various other Christian messages. Movies clearly make such an impact. Jesus of Nazareth, the 1977 mini-series, had a profound influence on my evangelical conversion in the same year. Everyone knows the remarkable story of the cultural and spiritual (almost revivalistic) effect of The Passion of the Christ. In this instance, it is old hymns and spirituals (nothing particularly trendy), sung by a dying 70-year-old country legend which have made a profound impression on people, even the non-religious. First, some comments from a BBC review of the box set:

He is an original - a poet, a rebel, a performer, and above all, a man of great sincerity. I am not [a] religious person but he makes you admire his faith. He wears it and he sings about it with passion, but he doesn't preach to anybody.

[T]hough I am not really religious I think spiritual music can't go deeper than this.

And from the amazon reviews:

It's a universal work, the depth of music in terms of genre and sentiment is incredible. I have never come across a box set like this with the variety of spiritual and secular insight.

I'm not a country music fan by any means, . . . In a CD store I was drawn to a display of Johnny Cash's "My Mothers Hymn Book." It sounded interesting, so I bought it - sort of on impulse. Well "My Mothers Hymn Book" is so good thet I rushed to Rhapsody to hear more Cash! "Unearthed" is extraordinarily deep, spiritual, human, and life affirming! Many of the songs are simply Johnny's heartfelt deep voice with his acoustic guitar or other simple accompaniment. . . . Cash captures life at its very essence. "Unearthed" is timeless! No fluff here -- Just raw life in all its glory and grace.

I once heard Johnny's later music described as "the voice of God coming from the bottom of a barrel of aged whiskey". That ain't too far from the truth...

MY MOTHER'S HYMN BOOK. This disc features 15 songs of Cash singing gospel songs armed with only an acoustic guitar. This is an album that he wanted to record all his life, and it is the one that he named as his personal favorite. A very personal album it is: Cash is literally singing from his mother's hymn book! Cash states in the liner notes how much these songs mean to him; it comes across clearly on his performances. These stark, moving, unadorned performances are truly something to behold: beautiful and very emotional. Even non-Christian listeners or those who do not like gospel songs, will find much to admire in this set because of its emotional, intense, and clearly heartfelt nature. For those who especially value Cash's gospel performances, this will be the best disc in the set; . . .

[E]very recording is a pure inspirational treasure. From a troubled mind to redemption Cash captured it all here. The music in this set allows me to truly believe that even if you have a secret darkness inside you, that in the end there is a light that will welcome you if you are a believer in love, kindness and all that is good. Buy this set, pass it down to your kids. Let them know that there was once a man in black that did not stand for evil, but stood for that which is right. In a time when it seems America is torn between right and left, black and white, rich and poor, John's voice still stands out as an advocate for all. It always has and it always will.

Next, from a Rambles review:

He returns to his gospel persona on the fourth CD, "My Mother's Hymnbook." Here Cash does what few singers can achieve. He sings gospel with a genuine feeling but never sounds as if he is anything less that totally committed to the sentiment. This is religion as it should be -- enjoyable while telling us some basic truths.

And amazon reviews specifically on this 4th CD: My Mother's Hymn Book:

The best Christian music I have ever heard. I never really liked Christian music because it is so padded and fluffed up with instruments and noise that the lyrics are not clear. My Mother's Hymnbook is a back-to-basics collection of encouraging and uplifting hymns in a crisp, clear and simple style so you can clearly hear the all-important words. . . . when you're done feeling sorry for yourself and want some hope and a ray of light, then play My Mother's Hymnbook.

The gospel as sung by someone who BELIEVES it . . . Hear the difference it makes to hear gospel sung by someone who believes in what he's singing. To fully experience the power of these songs, reconsider the message in the lyric and the Christ it offers. You can't sing with conviction of the "Sweet By and By" until you're convinced of its reality and your certain destiny there. There are other collections of Johnny singing gospel but there's a special quality to these imbued by the fact that Cash knew he was "bound for the Promised Land" sooner rather than later.

There is appeal here for people who have never darkened the door of a church-much less a little clapboard-sided church in rural Arkansas. After all, this is Cash and, as they say, if you don't dig Cash you've got no soul. . . . listening to the recording and reading the accompanying byline, it is obvious that Cash himself is not keeping the music at arm's length. This is an intensely personal creation: a work of love. This was his "favorite album," the one of which he was the most proud. "That was me," he says. Cash is "singing and playing this music back to his mother," recalling a childhood that, though unhappy in many ways, was steeped in the message and music of the Gospel. . . .

But I suspect that Cash himself would tell you that the deepest significance of this music is its message-a message that sustained him in troubled times. He speaks of his "wilderness years" when "the demons crawled up my back." Seriously addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates, and even attempting suicide, but for the grace of God his might have been yet another tragic tale of one who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for stardom. These "powerful songs," he says, were "my magic to take me through the dark places." A self-described "C-minus Christian," Cash says, "even through the dark times, I always felt like I was bound for the Promised Land, especially singing those songs." One gets the impression that, even as he cultivated his image as "one of the original outlaws," as Willie Nelson once described him, he never quite forgot the One of whom his mother had sung. He may have wandered far from home, but he took the hymnal-the hymns, at least-along with him. Here is a white-haired old sinner who has, I wish to believe, finally reconciled himself to God. Cash says that he finally came to accept "that God thought there was something worth saving."

. . . Then, too, there is the reflection that Cash had some good reason for recording these hymns literally out of his mother's old hymnal when he did and as he did. Perhaps this is my own interpolation, but it is easy to hear these recordings as outward evidence of a final act of repentance after a life lived as an outlaw on the lam. Hearing Cash sing the words, "Ye who are weary, come home," it is equally easy to think that he has finally accepted that very offer. And, in light of such thoughts, I realize that it is only as a participant in the culture of belief that this music can be fully appreciated. Hearing an aged and experienced Cash singing that his only plea is Christ's blood and Christ's invitation, I realize that I stand in need of such grace just as surely as does this outlaw and former drug addict. And I recognize that I, too, wrestle with demons. Such reflections complete the circuit between the performer and his audience in a way that is just not available to those who would "bracket" the message of the music and hear it as a cultural artifact.

A poignant spiritual journey to the gospel roots . . . Never were Mr. Cash's life struggles and salvations more highlighted than when he chose to delve into gospel music. He fought early in his career to record a Christian album, and these songs that he loved were a prime element of his recording and performing from that point forward. In fact, he may very well have made it "hip" to enjoy this music. So, it is fitting that his first posthumous release is the thoroughly beautiful and powerful "My Mother's Hymn Book". . . . What makes this disc so powerful is in the simplicity of its production. All the tracks were recorded just with Mr. Cash's vocals and his acoustic guitar. The result is that the songs are performed as the listener would hear in church. However, there are more intangibles to this recording that make it a wonderful experience to listen to. As with almost every song in his extensive catalog, Mr. Cash conveyed a sense to the listener that he lived the experiences that were put to music; that is no different in this case. Mr. Cash's vocals relate a raw emotional quality that are enhanced even more by the knowledge that he and his wife's time on earth was short. But, there is a power and confidence to his effort that suggest he was comfortable with his place in life and also with his spiritual future.

These performances are Johnny Cash singing to you and me. One on One. Whoever is listening and wherever you are listening. This is the truth. Sung by just the man and his guitar. An absolutely perfect display of spiritual connection. Wow, . . .

Whether you grew up listening to these or similar songs at home or church or not, whether you are even religiously inclined toward the Christian faith or you profess some form of agnostic alergy to spiritual music, it would be very hard not to be drawn to the austere honesty and profound depth of these renditions.

Profound . . . I'm not a particularly religious guy. In fact, the world could do with a lot less religion, by my account. Unless it is the sort of spirituality presented and evoked in this lovely and profoundly moving testament Cash has delivered to his Lord, his mother, to all that is sacred about this life. There are no halleluiahs, no gospel raves, no snake charmers and thank you Jezez, shout outs to the Lord God who blesses my career , you know all that rubbish you hear on Grammy Awards whenever some social pariah needs to justify their existence and feign humility.Nope. This is a man, kneeling in a chapel by himself, praying from his mother's book. I can think of nothing more sincere and heartfelt than this set, delivered by John thoroughly unaffected. It is quiet, joyful, solemn,acoustic music. No overproduction. In all these respects it is one of the finest genuine evocations of the human soul you will ever hear. This is the best that American music can be. Embrace this CD. It is one last reminder of the importance of Shakespeare's admonition, "To thine own self be true." Here is the ontological proof.

This album is living, breathing proof that the commercial record industry has the power to release work that has enduring value and rare creative power. It is a privilege to hear Cash, in the final months of his life) sing songs from the bedrock of the Southern gospel tradition and America's African spiritual legacy. . . . In Cash's understated, heartfelt interpretations, we can hear the voices of all those who preceded him in this music, and it is a total joy.

Finally a "Reveal" review:

While Unearthed was acclaimed for its exquisiteness, it was My Mother’s Hymn Book
the fourth disc in the five-disc set—that stole the show. . . . The album—a collection of hymns and spirituals culled from an old, threadbare hymnal passed on to Cash by his mother—is nothing special from a technical or critical standpoint. On a surface level, it’s just an old songster with a drawling, world-weary baritone strumming away at a guitar. Had a chirpy, overzealous Christian singer tried a similar feat, he would have been stoned to death. But Cash had the credentials to pull it off, and on an emotional level, Hymnbook resonates with the strength of a man singing with authority about faith in his Lord, the one thing that had sustained him during his wandering, storied life. . . . Cash sings “Softly and Tenderly” without a trace of pomp in the sound; with heartache and conviction, he moves through the tune as if this were one of his final chances to extend the loving invitation for sinners to come home. . . .

Perhaps intentionally, this record exudes an unsettling sense of urgency in the numerous selections that deal with death, the fragility of life, and our impending future in heaven. “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” “I Am a Pilgrim,” and “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies” all give the impression Cash simply cannot wait to go home, and that he’s looking forward to it with the innocence of a child who’s been promised a treat. He doesn’t sound remorseful while doing so, but rather expectant. As if prophesying about what awaits him, he anticipates the “glad morning when this life is o’er” in “I’ll Fly Away;” and he dreams of “the land that is fairer than day” in “In the Sweet By and By,” his voice brimming with joy while the singsongy guitarwork is relegated to a distant second in the mix.

Arguably the most thematic album in Johnny Cash’s career, My Mother’s Hymn Book can be overwhelming for the many emotions it can conjure up in those who feel life is ephemeral, yet still full of hardships. Ultimately, it’s proof that the Man in Black, just like us, was an individual merely in transit, not willing to let the hurt in his life keep him from his reward, one not made by human hands.

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