The Johnny Cash Homestead in Dyess, Arkansas. Photo by Dero Sanford.
There was a time when country music singers were known for rhinestone encrusted jump suits, tall boots and big cowboy hats. Maybe these fashion faux pas were a way to help people escape their everyday lives, a marketing ploy to glamorize the genre so closely associated with heartache and hard work. Whatever the reason, Johnny Cash wasn’t buying into it.
Cash was three in 1935, when his father, Ray, moved the family to the Dyess, Arkansas, agricultural colony set up by the Roosevelt administration’s farm program. Forget any romantic notions about the Great Depression. Little Johnny wasn’t pickin’ and grinnin’ on the front porch. Farming the “black gumbo” of Northeastern Arkansas was hard work, pure and simple. 20-acres of cotton and other seasonal crops were farmed by hand by the Cash family, including all seven children.
It was the Depression and Cash was, by all accounts, greatly affected by the sights and sounds of his home in Dyess: The weathered faces of hard men, the strength of the women in the community, the sounds of railroads nearby, and the constant buzz of work on the farm. Cash’s own website says that, “He absorbed these sounds like sponge absorbs water.” It cites the songs “Pickin’ Time”, “Five Feet High and Rising”, and “Look at Them Beans” as drawing inspiration from Cash’s early Arkansas years.
Sure, Cash went far in his career, but his roots were firmly entrenched in that fertile Northeast Arkansas soil. Arkansas State University Heritage Sites Director Dr. Ruth A. Hawkins has a long history in preserving culturally significant sites in the state including the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum in Piggott, the Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, and the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza. Plans are underway to preserve the childhood home of Johnny Cash and the town center of Dyess to create a tourist destination where people can learn about the region, its agricultural history and the music of Cash. In fact, several music festivals have been held with the support of Cash’s family to raise funds for the Dyess project, including the most recent one on Sunday, February 26, honoring Johnny Cash on what would have been his 80th birthday.
“The Cash family has bought into this project because it’s the real deal,” Hawkins said. “This will be an authentic restoration, with Johnny Cash’s family representing every one of the Dyess Colony families who pulled themselves up by their boot straps.”
Throughout his career, Cash was seen as both an outlaw and a philosopher. It is reported that Cash chose to wear somber clothing to remember the downtrodden, the incarcerated and the forgotten.
In 1971, he penned “The Man in Black” to explain his image:
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.
Reviewing the 2008, book “Johnny Cash and Philosophy: The Burning Ring of Truth” by John Huss and David Werther, punk musician John Langford, wrote:
Johnny Cash was the Man in Black, the philosopher-prince of American country music, and it’s about time we had a book that takes a serious look at his life and work and the many layers of its meaning. Around him, gutted terms like decency, honesty, and truth retain some of their intended meaning, and in a country that fears self-criticism above all else, he holds a mirror up to the white bland wide rotten hide.
Long live the memory of the “philosopher prince of American country music” and here’s to the visionaries at ASU working to preserve a slice of the Johnny Cash story. See ya in Dyess soon, Cash fans.
The official Johnny Cash Website
The Johnny Cash PhilosophyBook
Arkansas State University
Wikipedia: Johnny Cash – Is a great springboard into other articles, information, and a fantastic live overview.