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Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity

Leigh H. Edwards

Publication Year: 2009

Throughout his career, Johnny Cash has been depicted -- and has depicted himself -- as a walking contradiction: social protestor and establishment patriot, drugged wildman and devout Christian crusader, rebel outlaw hillbilly thug and elder statesman. Leigh H. Edwards explores the allure of this paradoxical image and its cultural significance. She argues that Cash embodies irresolvable contradictions of American identity that reflect foundational issues in the American experience, such as the tensions between freedom and patriotism, individual rights and nationalism, the sacred and the profane. She illustrates how this model of ambivalence is a vital paradigm for American popular music, and for American identity in general. Making use of sources such as Cash's autobiographies, lyrics, music, liner notes, and interviews, Edwards pays equal attention to depictions of Cash by others, such as Vivian Cash's publication of his letters to her, documentaries and music journalism about him, Walk the Line, and fan club materials found in the archives at the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, to create a full portrait of Cash and his significance as a cultural icon.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: Profiles in Popular Music

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pp. ix-xi

During the course of writing this book, I had the pleasure of conferring with fellow travelers who believe, like me, in the power and importance of popular culture and popular music. First and foremost, many thanks, of course, to all the good people at Indiana University Press, especially Jane Behnken. When I made my pilgrimage to the Country Music Foundation...

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Introduction: Cash as Contradiction

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pp. 1-24

Johnny Cash’s death in September 2003 prompted an intense emotional response from a vast number of artists and fan communities worldwide. Such a large-scale emotional investment in a popular artist calls for an inquiry into Cash’s cultural impact and legacy, and how his image, body of work, and public reception reflect larger issues in American popular...

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1. "What Is Truth?": Authenticity and Persona

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pp. 26-63

I have been arguing that, in Cash, a large part of what counts as his projected “authenticity” is the image that he is a walking contradiction with respect to the different components of his performance. Precisely because his incongruities are what he and others portray as authentic in him, Cash is instructive in debates about the creation of authenticity...

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2. “A Boy Named Sue”: American Manhood

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pp. 64-80

Johnny Cash is an icon of Southern white working-class masculinity. The embodiment and performance of that masculinity—in his persona, lyrics, and biographical and autobiographical self-presentation across the second half of the twentieth century—are multilayered and raise key issues for the study of masculinity in U.S. popular culture...

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3. Gender and “The Beast in Me”: Ramblers and Rockabillies Authenticity and Persona

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pp. 82-105

As Cash develops his theme of manhood, reflecting the specific socio-historical contexts in which he is writing and performing, his representations also embrace the broader sweep of country music’s treatment of the tensions in Southern working-class life. Each section of this chapter considers a key recurring gender theme in Cash’s oeuvre and examines...

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4. Race and Identity Politics

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pp. 106-125

Broadening the discussion, this chapter considers how Cash’s work and career are a forceful comment on identity politics. I examine his complicated identification with American Indian cultures and his long-running engagement with America’s frontier mythology, that deep national story still informing country and western music. Cash, in typical equivocating...

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5. Man in Black: Class and National Mythologies

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pp. 126-154

Cash’s representations of Southern working-class tribulations critique national mythologies, pointing up exceptions to the supposed freedom and equality in the country’s foundational narratives. On another level, however, Cash’s oeuvre also reinforces other aspects of America’s core fictions, such as upholding patriotism, the flag as a symbol of pride, the valor...

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6. The Gospel Road: Cash as Saint and Sinner

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pp. 156-182

Johnny Cash’s themes of contradiction run strongly throughout his texts addressing religion. Depictions of Cash emphasize his saint-sinner dichotomy. He was the devout Christian who took Bible classes, evangelized on the Billy Graham crusades, and made his own self-financed film of Jesus’ life long before Mel Gibson did it so controversially. Yet Cash...

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Conclusion: “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”: Cultural Legacies

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pp. 184-189

Throughout his corpus Johnny Cash generates strong contradictory currents around the theme of Southern white working-class masculinity. As he leaves the sinner-saint, the rambler-homebody, the Saturday night–Sunday morning binaries in productive tension, his work voices larger contradictions in American culture. From his uncertainties...


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pp. 191-214

Works Cited

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pp. 215-225


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pp. 227-241

E-ISBN-13: 9780253003171
E-ISBN-10: 0253003172
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253352927

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Profiles in Popular Music