I bought a Johnny Cash CD called Ride This Train
last week. It's a concept album. Every song starts out with a skit, where you hear these train wheels clanking and then he starts narrating some story before he sings it. It's not his best, but it's got some good stuff on it. Now, I like Johnny Cash more than anybody I know, but I've always thought that some of his music had a weird racial thing going on. Like in this song that was in the movie, "Get Rhythm."
"I said 'you're mighty little, boy, to be workin that way'/ he said 'I like it' with a big wide grin." This was a song that he wrote for Elvis before dude got signed to a major label, and I never like it much anyway. It sounds like he's trying to be rockabilly or something, so I never though too much about it. But some stuff on Ride This Train, which came out in 1960, is just blatantly insanely embarrasing. So I had to write about it.
In the Unearthed boxed set of stuff he did with Rick Rubin that didn't make any of the American albums, "I'm Going to Memphis"
is an awesome song. Starts out with vocals carrying the rhythm and the melody just getting strummed out like on the chorus of "Don't Bring Your Guns to Town." The vocals are from the point of someone on a chain gang, looking forward to finishing up his time and going to a Honky Tonk in Memphis. "I got a gal in Vicksburg/ Bertha is her name/ lord, I wish I was tied to Bertha/ instead of this ball and chain." As an old man he sings this whole song without a hint of irony or melodrama. The only accompaniment is his own guitar in the background. This is the version I first heard.
Ride This Train has the original version
, and in a lot of ways it's better. The narration in the beginning frames the story, talking about how levees were built by chain gangs which were raised by cops just rounding people up from bars for bullshit charges and putting them to work. It's got some totally badass lyrics that got taken out in the newer version too, like "a dude took all my money/ wouldn't let me see the cards/ I owe the boss about a hundred years/ sleeping in his backyard." It sounds totally overblown, with honkytonk piano in the background and a little shuffle played on the guitar, and with a chain gang percussion section. I think this was something kind of big in the 60s, when at the Newport Folk Festival they had a bunch of black dudes on stage wearing striped outfits and singing while they whacked away at something with a pick. There was a song like that in the beginning of O Brother Where Art Thou, but that was a movie. Anyway, in this song they play the racial shit up to the point that in the background there are exaggerated black accents going "Mmm Hmm" and "Memphis, lawd" and shit in the background. It's totally ridiculous, and it ruins the song. Still though, this song has nothing on "Boss Jack"
, off the same album.
This song was written for Johnny Cash by Tex Ritter, father of John Ritter, who died the same day as Johnny Cash. He also did the score to the old Gary Cooper movie High Noon
, which is totally awesome. So it's a good thing that he did at least one thing I like, cause "Boss Jack" is a total piece of shit. The opening skit is Johnny Cash talking from the point of view of a plantation owner, who says "I had the best bunch of slaves you ever saw, and I treated them right." He talks about this one old slave who didn't come back from the fields one night, and how "Uncle Moses" was sitting on his cotton sack and being inspired to write Swing Home Sweet Chariot. Instead of then going and singing that song, Johnny Cash instead sings another song Uncle Moses wrote, about how cool Boss Jack is. You know, how his horse is all mean and everybody else is afraid to ride him and stuff. How he took them all out for a fish cookout and would free them someday. Then the chorus is all upbeat, "come on children/ fill your sack/ then you hitch up your wagon/ take it to the gin." I mean, how did this song happen?
The most irritatingly knee jerk conservative and ass ignorant modern country says stupid shit all the time, but I don't really care because I don't like that music anyway. It's not like I'm gonna just block out the lyrics to "Have You Forgotten," you know? The thing is, when a guy like Johnny Cash is singing it, it means I can't put my iTunes on shuffle when people are at my house. It also makes me wonder, cause I think that on the whole here was a singer who really had his heart in the right place and was pretty smart, so was he just singing this stuff cause he hadn't really thought about it? I don't know, but I guess this is one of those things where if you like country music so you gotta put up with hearing stupid shit sometimes.