The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: Johnny Cash's 'Forever Words'

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Johnny Cash's 'Forever Words'
Johnny Cash's 'Forever Words' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

A three-disc greatest hits collection released in 2000 divided Johnny Cash's songs into three thematic batches: Love, God, and Murder. That neatly summed up his public persona, but a new book of poems makes clear that it wasn't all a show.

The 41 poems in Forever Words span Cash's life, from one penned when he was just 12 years old all the way to 2003, the year the Man in Black succumbed to complications from diabetes at age 71. The collection has been culled, by poet Paul Muldoon, from a stack of verse offered by Cash's son John Carter Cash.

Both Muldoon and the younger Cash contribute essays to Forever Words. Cash remembers his father as a complicated and many-faceted creative force, while Muldoon (who, we are told, was impressed by the poems before he learned the author's identity) does the requisite contextualizing, connecting Cash to ancient ballads and T.S. Eliot.

Some of these poems were intended as song lyrics — it wasn't always clear what Cash's intention was — while others were just meant to be poems. Almost all of them, though, would easily fit to music, and if you're a songwriter yourself, you might be tempted to pull a Billy Bragg with pieces like "Crowley's Ridge."

I borrowed me a ridin' hoss
I headed north for Crowley's Ridge to cross
We crossed Little River at Le-Pan-To
Never slowed down
Till around Jones-boro

(Wait a while and some pros will do it for you. "I've already recorded Chris Cornell, Jamey Johnson, T-Bone Burnett, Dailey & Vincent, Brad Paisley, and Jewel," John Carter Cash tells Rolling Stone. "Each of these artists have taken a poem and put it to their own music. We're right in the middle of that project and plan to have it done by early next year.")

In many cases, images of Cash's handwritten versions are presented alongside the typeset text, making clear just how personal these words were for Cash. Like his songs, they tend to fall along the lines of love ("If You Love Me"), God ("He Bore It All For Me"), and murder (the ironically titled "I Wish You a Merry Christmas"). They also reflect Cash's political thinking, in particular his reflections on the misbegotten Vietnam War; and his dark wit, as in "Don't Make a Movie About Me."

Truth, said the Master, cannot be hid
But he didn't say slap it in the face of my kids.

Oops. Anyway...though the first thing you'll want to do when you finish these poems is put on a Johnny Cash record, reading the poems alone drives home just how carefully Cash chose his words and how hard he thought about the themes that defined his life. "Going, Going, Gone" is an acid look at drug addiction ("Liquid, tablet, capsule, powder/ Fumes and smoke and vapor/ The payoff is the same in the end"), while "Don't Take Your Gun to Town" revisits his 1958 song three decades later, offering a more hopeful ending.

Like a good song, Johnny Cash's life and art bear revisiting time and again. Forever Words is one good place to start.


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