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  • A "Dove with Claws"?Johnny Cash as Radical
  • Jonathan Silverman

The image of a "dove with claws" is striking—the symbol of peace fused with a symbol of aggression. On some level, the image makes little sense—Cash later called the metaphor "stupid"—as indeed doves already have claws; it's the equivalent of talking about a dog with paws. But as an imaginary symbol, perhaps a small peaceful bird with oversize claws, ready to defend or attack as necessary, it works better. This problematic metaphor is apt for Cash's own ventures into the world of popular politics in the 1960s and 1970s, ventures which were decidedly ambiguous in their orientation toward the traditional poles of liberal and conservative.

Cash was an outspoken defender of the downtrodden throughout the decade, but his causes never fully linked up with more prominent forms of protest. He recorded an entire album of songs, Bitter Tears, about the Native American plight in 1964, and played prisons in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, culminating in two widely popular albums, At Folsom Prison and [End Page 91] At San Quentin. Only Bitter Tears could definitively be called protest; because playing at prisons helped bring attention to the plight of inmates there, one could certainly classify the prison albums as protest. He also recast his use of black—earlier commentators had noted his tendency to wear black, labeling him as "The Man in Black," seemingly as a form of cool, and as his problems with drugs and alcohol became more prominent, its more cowboy definition, that of evildoer. In 1970, Cash redefined the "Man in Black" into a crusader who wears the black to protest injustice of almost every sort.

But at the same time, Cash both visited the troops in Vietnam and played at the White House soon after, and despite not playing songs that Richard Nixon requested, said he would "stand behind him." He was associated, though not without his reluctance, with the genre of county music, generally a politically conservative genre of popular music. He also wrote and recorded Ragged Ole Flag in 1974, whose title cut is unabashedly patriotic.

This mix of patriotism and protest makes the notion of his radicalness unstable at best. Cash adds further uncertainty to this mix through his relationship to multiple audiences. While he was most often identified with country music, some observers identified with folk music and even rock and roll, because of his presence at Sun Studios with Elvis Presley. Cash often resisted being identified with one genre, and such resistance undoubtedly complicated his response to political issues like the Vietnam War. In the 1969 Madison Square Garden concert, for example, Cash unsubtly uses his songs as a sort of biography of him and his region, highlighting the differences between him and his New York audience by assuming their lack of geographic and agricultural knowledge of "the flat black delta land of Arkansas." Cash knew his New York audience would receive his stories about Vietnam differently and more receptively than audiences in the South. In his recorded prison concerts from this period, he did not mention Vietnam at all. Nevertheless, at least towards some audiences, Cash was a man involved in a "war on war" as the band Wilco puts it, but also in a war with himself over what his stance should be.

An interesting question is to what extent Johnny Cash reflects the political radicalism of the period, especially in terms of his anti-war politics. As we have seen, his radicalism is audience dependent, indeterminate, and generally changeable—a lot like the definition of radicalism itself, and probably reflective of a large portion of the country. As Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John McMillian write in their anthology of American radical writing:

"Radical" has always been an elusive adjective—a contested and fluid concept that owes no allegiance to any particular movement, ideology, or period. Radicalism [End Page 92] must always be understood, therefore, within specific historical contexts. It is also a painfully subjective concept: One person's radicalism is often another person's reform.3

There is also a perception...