Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Johnny Cash, Songwriter


Johnny Cash was born on this date in 1932.
When you live in Memphis, you drive past Sun Studio all the time.  It's right there on Union Avenue, and if you're going downtown from anywhere, you're likely to pass it.  You can see the tourists up and down the street, and you'll feel sorry for those poor people who arrive at the Greyhound bus station and assume that they can just walk from place to place in Memphis, even when it's August and 102 degrees.
It wasn't far to Sun Studio

When I taught in Midtown Memphis, I was less than a mile and a half from Sun Studio.  The trip from my classroom to Sun would take you past Alex Chilton's childhood home, the spot where Elvis died, and the grave of Nathan Bedford Forrest.  There's that much history in Midtown Memphis.  

Sam Phillips, who founded Sun Studio and recorded Johnny Cash  died in July of 2003.  After his funeral, his sons Knox and Jerry held a memorial service for him at the Canon Center in downtown Memphis, and Renee, Justin, and I went.  There were lots of speakers and performers, including Jim Dickinson, who said that Sam Phillips was "full of shit," and  Marty Stewart, who finished the ceremony with a song.

At one point during the event, Johnny Cash's voice came over the P.A.  He told a hilarious story about recording "Hey Porter" with Phillips and how he broke his copy of the record on his way down to the radio station to get his first airplay.  He was distraught because he thought the record he had just smashed was the only copy that existed.

I'm not sure whether Johnny Cash, who everyone knew was near the end of the line, was actually in attendance that night.  I like to think that he was.  Either way, it was an amazing thing to listen to Cash reminiscing at Phillips's memorial about the time he helped invent rock and roll.  Johnny Cash died two and a half months later.

If you want to know more about Cash, you can read about a dozen books about him or even watch that movie with Reese Witherspoon.  So, instead of trying to say something new about him, I'll just call attention to one of my favorite Cash songs, "Orleans Parish Prison," off of the Murder compilation.  Not only is it a poetic song about mercy (an an excellent example of apostrophe!), it also has fiddles that approach perfection.



Well, have you seen my dark haired girl?
She was selling her love to a hungry world.
They got her clothes and the money she took,
and they wrote her name in the prison book.

Orleans Parish prison, won't you free my dark-haired girl?
She was tired and cold and you got the gold
she took from a hungry world.
Orleans Parish prison, won't you free my dark-haired girl?

Well, have you seen my green-eyed son?  
He shot a man down with a sawed-off gun.
And they found him down by the Ponchatrain,
where they cuffed his hands with a big iron chain.  

Orleans Parish prison, won't you free my green-eyed son?
I heard him say as they led him away 
he's sorry for what he's done.
Orleans Parish prison, won't you free my green-eyed son?

Well, have you missed my brother man?
He took a little money with a gun in his hand.
Now the kids are hungry and his wife ain't well,
and their daddy's locked up in a prison cell.

Orleans Parish prison, won't you free my brother man?
I know it's sad, but he ain't bad, 
he's doing the best he can.
Orleans Parish prison, won't you free my brother man?

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