Mourning Johnny Cash, ‘The Man in Black’

by Karl Noyes

You can always tell the life a man has lived by looking into his eyes. Nothing is so clear as the truths revealed in their glistening light. You can see it in Abraham Lincoln’s portraits or in the portraits of slaves. In the late-life pictures of Johnny Cash, you can see it as well.

Johnny Cash’s life was one of addiction and atonement. Sin and penance. Pain and finally peace. His years were mixed with loneliness and love. He made you almost wish to feel the pain of addiction and loss, just so when you met the man you could look him in the eyes and say, “Mr. Cash, I know.”

He was the original “Man in Black,” bearing the world’s burdens.

“Oh I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s okay
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on back
Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.”

In a world of ultimate unfairness, his songs made you recognize that your world was too comfortable, too safe, too self-centered and too godless.

Cash’s early life was one of perseverance. He was born in Kingsland, Ark., into the failure of his father’s cotton farm. In Dyess, Ark., the Cash family would start anew. There, to a table saw accident, Cash would lose his closest brother. Long hours spent working in cotton fields and music would help Cash deal with his brother’s death.

Cash abhorred the life of “wage slaves” and refused to work in offices or factories. Eventually, he joined the military. Soon afterward he became part of the Sun Records revolution with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. Years later, Country and Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Hall of Fames, Kennedy Center Honors, Grammy Awards, and accomplishments too numerous to list would embellish his musical resume.

Recently he suffered from diabetes and Shy-Drager Syndrome, a disease similar to Parkinson’s disease. Whether it was from drug overdoses, car accidents or a vicious ostrich attack, Cash lived in the shadow of death. In interviews, Cash summed up his attitude toward death. “When death starts beating your door down, you need to be reaching for your shotgun.”

Many articles written in the aftermath of Cash’s death will gloss over his deep spirituality and limit him to “Ring of Fire” or “Boy Named Sue.” But eulogizing Johnny Cash without acknowledging his strong faith would be akin to talking of Jackie Robinson and not mentioning his race.

In the late sixties, years of constant touring coupled with constant amphetamine abuse drove Cash to seek death along the banks of the Tennessee River. There he used up his flashlight and lost himself in Nickajack Cave. But waiting for death in the silent beauty of darkness, deep in the black caverns of Nickajack, Cash broke down. He had crawled in a broken man but would emerge a man of epiphany.

In his 1997 autobiography, Johnny Cash would recall his experience. “There in Nickajack Cave I became conscious of a very clear simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny. I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God’s time, not mine.”

Friday at 2 a.m. was God’s time. The world can only be thankful that God allowed him to share his gifts with us for so long.

Karl Noyes is an English and political science sophomore. He also is a member of the Daily’s editorial board. Noyes welcomes comments at [email protected]