“Here’s a song that almost everyone knows some of the words to.” Such hopeful introductions appear throughout Albert E. Brumley’s America’s Memory Valley (“Contents: A Collection of old-tyme songs, pictures and song history”). This little booklet, published in Camdenton, Missouri in 1992, asks the modern-tyme reader to “call to mind a time of our forefathers when life was simple but hard, when work seemed never ending, but how people still managed to gather together for times of recreation, socializing and spiritual nourishment. From these gatherings emerged songs about mother, home, heaven and even songs about their work.”
Apparently Rosanne Cash, eldest daughter of walking music repository Johnny Cash, was not among the “almost-everyone” who could “recall some of the treasured songs of our early pioneers.” Right after high school, Rosanne jumped on the tour bus with her old man and started living the country music life, but Johnny was dismayed by her lack of familiarity with many of the songs he held dear. So Johnny decided to write down the titles of what he considered to be “100 Essential Country Songs.” Rosanne reflected recently that “…he could have called it ‘100 Essential American Songs,’ because he included history songs, protest songs, early folk songs, Delta Blues, gospel, Texas swing, and standards that simply defy genre.” “The List,” as it came to be known, would suggest songs and sources of inspiration for the whole of Rosanne’s career, culminating when Rosanne and husband John Leventhal selected twelve songs from the list for her 2009 release, The List (Manhattan Records).
In the liner notes, Rosanne admits, “I was so steeped in the rock and pop music of my time that I did not understand the vital importance of the songs that were my musical genealogy.” If a musically-inclined child of a recording industry legend in 1973 could somehow miss those songs of mother, home, heaven, and work, how much more ignorant must “almost everyone” be today when music no longer just enhances social, spiritual, and recreational gatherings but permeates every soundtrack-ready moment of our self-absorbed lives. Walking through America’s Memory Valley, one gets the feeling that it was the gatherings that mattered, and the music that made them memorable; today such gatherings are unnecessary—unless they involve alcohol—for the music has taken their place.
That Rosanne Cash’s “musical genealogy” was scrawled out spontaneously between gigs and not inculcated over years of instructional parenting and watching her iconic father in action may surprise us, but in her short piece “My Dad Johnny Cash” (in Cash, Crown Archetype 2004), she describes a more subtle inheritance. “All my memories of him,” she concludes after sketches of the man teaching his kids to water-ski, cranking an old-fashioned ice cream maker for hours, and burning his hands repeatedly putting on a home fireworks display, “have those qualities of silence, patience, love and stoicism.” What Rosanne and the rest of Cash’s children received as a birthright was “an immense universe of ideas, of sound, beauty, mystery, love, pain and rhythm,” the same universe that “Daddy” had already set the example of exploring with his own “wide-open mind.”
Meanwhile, Cash assures those who purchase her album, “I have held onto this List for 35 years.” In her heart this is surely true, but the good daughter has not held on to the actual document, according to Michael Streissguth’s Always Been There: Rosanne Cash, The List, and the Spirit of Southern Music (Da Capo 2009). The Johnny Cash biographer’s book follows her from the early days in Nashville through the recent recording of The List. By page 187 (of 202), “Johnny Cash’s list is nowhere to be found.” By this time, its physical presence is no longer important; it is the search for it and its myriad meanings and applications that comes to be the guiding inspiration for Streissguth’s chronicle. It is The List’s ability to engender artistic responsibility, even in its absence, that is so striking as Rosanne finally begins the project those closest to her have been patiently waiting on for decades.
Even dimly remembered, The List brings healing and closure. “I actually feel really close to my dad making this record,” she tells Streissguth. She recounts how, two months before he died, so much resolution took place between father and daughter simply in singing together “Forty Shades of Green” that “it would have been redundant and kind of cheap to talk about it.” She shares with her father an “obsession with songs,” but not necessarily the same ones. Referring to what she remembers of her father’s original list, “there are some [songs] that I do feel the same intensity about, and then I have my own separate list that maybe he wouldn’t feel the same way about.”
Rosanne describes a photograph taken that day of the spontaneous duet. They sat in two large armchairs, she looking down and John looking off in the distance. “In our faces you could see that we both knew, you know.” She writes of how all of Johnny Cash’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, “every moment of every day,” were underscored by “the Rhythm.” When the man was onstage this “perpetual engine” found its full expression, but it was there “even in the mundane or sleepy moments, having lunch, watching television, driving a car, staring into space.” Her dad would hum and twitch and with head, hands, and feet beat out a tempo “that seemed to originate in his very cells.” Cash was a man “bound and liberated by rhythm.”
It is this Rhythm that Rosanne chose for her own binding and loosing, her own bodily and spiritual way to be in this world. Others have theirs, just as we all have our own separate lists of essential songs about which our loved ones might not feel the same. Perhaps The List holds out hope that one day “almost everyone” really will know some of the words. But in a postmodern age, can we think of anything as essential anymore? Who knows if teenagers today would not—much to their surprise—include selections from Johnny Cash’s history songs, protest songs, early folk songs, Delta Blues, gospel, Texas swing, and standards in their own list of essential American songs? It’s not likely. We can no longer take for granted that kids know all or even some of “The Blue Tail Fly” or “Amazing Grace.” We cannot guess with much confidence that they have sung a verse or two of “We Shall Overcome” or “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Would they jump at the chance to make fun of “Oh! Susanna” with a banjo on their knee? We can only hope that many of them watched Jamie Foxx in the 2004 film Ray sing “Take These Chains from My Heart,” a song Rosanne gives a particularly soulful performance on The List. In the 2010 film The Runaways, Kristen Stewart as a Gibson-wielding Joan Jett displays first impatience, then contempt for a middle-aged guitar teacher who asks her to play “Red River Valley” on an acoustic instrument. She was after Rock ‘n’ Roll, not singing cowboy songs, and she did not see the connection between the two.
It’s likely that fifth-grade girls in push-up bras and skinny jeans will not be long engaged singing “Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care.” The “I don’t care” part they can dig, but Jimmy what? The rock and pop music today’s kids are steeped in consists of songs about mothers revered for guidance given but not followed (think Tupac); homes broken, left, ignored, or false (think “Irreplaceable”); and a heaven found only in the eyes or between the thighs of a lover. With a few rare exceptions, you can forget about work. Nobody gets rich from having a job.
Of course, Brumley’s and Johnny’s music dealt with some of the same themes, but those qualities of silence, patience, love, and stoicism were once passed on in the songs of the pioneers. “I cannot count the times,” Rosanne writes of her father, that “I heard him say, ‘Children, you can choose love or hate. I choose love.’” How many children today know that they have that choice? Popular music today often makes that choice—and many others—for us.
The search today should be for songs that make that choice clear and illustrate the power to choose. Such songs are to be lived, not just sung. Cash describes her father as more real, whole, and “alive to the subtleties of this world and the worlds beyond” than anyone she’s ever known or heard of. She saw in her father a demeanor that she considers the very definition of integrity: “He was willing to live with the weight of his own pain… without making anyone else pay for it.” While some of her and Leventhal’s selections are weepers (“She’s Got You,” “Heartaches by the Number”), others such as “Motherless Children” and “I’m Movin’ On” demonstrate this determination.
Rosanne ends her “My Dad” piece by remembering something a friend told her. “Your parents keep teaching you even after they are gone.” The same is true of songs. While we may never know what titles went down on Johnny’s list that day, what matters now is what titles make our own lists, and through our influence, example, and wide-open minds, the lists of others.
J. D. Buhl, who has written about music for The Cresset since 2002, wishes to thank his friend Susan Ong for inspiring this piece.