Johnny Cash’s late covers are superior to their original recordings, but are they traditional?
I’m stuck this morning in the Tea Lounge of Park Slope, Brooklyn, and it’s possible that the poor hipster who does the baby sing-along at the Tea Lounge is coming in any minute, God help me, and there are two-year-olds bouncing off the walls and smearing their H1N1 hands on every surface, and usually, under these circumstances, I just turn up the music in my earbuds to eleven, to tune it all out, but instead I’m listening to what’s playing on the Tea Lounge p.a., because it happens to be Johnny Cash’s recording of “One” by U2. In general, I pretend U2 is not happening—when I see Bono’s shades I try to avert my gaze—but I love Johnny Cash’s version of “One,” which, while not as good as his truly unsurpassed recording of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” or, for example, “The Beast In Me,” the Nick Lowe song he did under the same dark cloud, which is to say the American Recordings period when Rick Rubin seemed to bring Cash back from the brink of annihilation by capturing the resignation and mortality in his voice, is nonetheless some of the finest folk music of the last twenty years. Without fail, Cash’s late covers are superior to their original recordings, and, with just a guitar and his unstable, uncertain intonation, he manages to say more emotionally than most singers say in their entire careers. I cannot, for example, hear “Hurt” without weeping. I was at a pizzeria in our neighborhood a month or so ago talking to a waitress friend when “Hurt” came on the stereo, and in the middle of the conversation I needed to excuse myself. And I don’t feel this way about the Nine Inch Nails recording. I admire it, and I think Trent Reznor has a great ear for sonic textures, but he doesn’t make me weep.
However: my certainty about the excellence of the late Johnny Cash (and this is not to exclude the early Johnny Cash, who is equally good but more rock and roll) leads to a related question, which is today’s question, the question I am brooding about now and have been recently: would I consider Johnny Cash’s American Recordings period somehow traditional?
To answer the question, if indeed the question can be answered, you have to start with the folk revival of the late fifties and early sixties. Or, at least, this is always a useful place to begin any discussion of folk music. The folk revival is the music with which I became conscious of the world, in that I was in diapers, and then in elementary school, when some of that music was being released and popularized and talked about. Those were songs that we were taught to sing in music class, Pete Seeger songs, Joan Baez songs, Bob Dylan songs, Phil Ochs songs. In my house, The Clancy Brothers (Liam Clancy, rest in peace), were an affirmation of my mother’s Irish-Americanness, and to a child, the world that was spoken of in those old folk songs was (as I was also trying to say recently about Traffic’s recording of “John Barleycorn”) fascinating and exotic. It didn’t seem coincident with the world out the windows (the Connecticut suburbs), but it was just as real to me. When you are four or five you are permeable that way.
Still, did the folk revival genuinely summon the lost world, the world of Appalachian folk music the 19th century and early 20th century, or the English and Celtic folk traditions that preceded it by hundreds of years, did it revive the true spirit of folk music, the original spirit, or did it somehow just reproduce it? Is it enough if the folk revival photocopied the songs, if that is what it did? An example, for me, would be the Simon and Garfunkel recording of “Scarborough Fair.” This recording, according to people who know more about this history than I do, was cribbed from the excellent Martin Carthy, who taught it to Paul Simon when the latter was living in England in the early sixties. Carthy revived a version popular in the 19th century— although some version of the “Scarborough Fair” may go back much further (some people seem to think it’s about the Plague, so that’s how far back it may go). I can’t, however, shake the feeling that popularizing the song—though the Simon and Garfunkel version is lovely, with its sublime Art Garfunkel lead and its great descant melody—somehow conceals or smothers the original strangeness of the lyric. Or does it? Is it enough that the song in the main, is still there, still has the “Then she’ll be a true love of mine” refrain? I wouldn’t even know the names of most of the spices used in the kitchen if it weren’t for the Simon and Garfunkel recording. I thought parsley was something crammed into the chicken-shaped tray in my T.V. dinner in elementary school, something my mother heated up for me when my father wasn’t coming back from the office in time to see me and my brother and sister before we had to be in bed. The delicate loneliness of “Scarborough Fair” was my loneliness. But was that a contemporary feeling, a feeling of the 20th century suburbs, or a feeling that was coincident with the tradition in old folk music?