Throughout our history, myth has always been one of the driving forces of human civilisations: it is the light in the darkness which has brought us out of the cave. But what exactly is a myth? It is very often described as a story, a legend, that fertilises the arts, but it is much more than an inspiration. As an allegorical and symbolical story, it translates moral and philosophical truths that respond to some of our most primal fears. Mircea Eliade described it, for instance, as an entity whose purpose is to tell human beings what is at the origin of the world (ethno-religious myth). In other words, myth is at the heart of our societies since the dawn of time and has a special social function according to Max Weber, because it gives the human group its very soul – we thus pass from Gesellschaft to Gemeinschaft, from a formal and artificial group, to a social body. Or as Joseph Campbell put it, “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life”; they help us establish a connection with our inner-selves in order to feel the experience of life.
The reason why we need to say a few words about the whole idea of mythology is mainly because, in this day and age, we fail to recognise the importance of myths. Our societies have become increasingly corrupted and have lost their founding myths which explain its violence: its members are no longer connected to one another; they are not integrated and therefore have to produce their own social body with different laws and different rites of passage (gangs, graffiti...).
But why focus on Johnny Cash? What can possibly be the relationship between a musician and mythical concepts? For decades, people around the world have felt a special link with Cash: he was no movie star, no rock star, his aura was quite different from everything that the XXth century ever produced, and yet his fans have a feeling that very few can explain. His friend Bob Dylan wrote a few days after his death, “I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black.” In other words, he was the living personification of the mythical hero: a myth-maker, who represented a huge part of the American history, from its frontier myths to Dixie, he embodied what no longer existed: a shadow that embraced the past in order to lead his fellow men through the darkness. “Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him” even wrote Dylan. And it is because of the darkness that always surrounded him that he is loved so much, even a decade after he passed away. For Campbell, it is precisely imperfection that produces affection, or to put it more concretely, perfection is inhuman. We do not know how to process it, and that is why people are in awe of God but love Christ on the cross.
The object of this paper is therefore to show why Cash has been mythologised over the years. Heroes are not only great warriors who spend their time slaying dragons and eloping with beautiful princesses – even though these activities do seem to take a huge amount of their time – they are educators. Their real mission is to complete their journey in order to lead their fellow human beings toward salvation, and that is where music has its importance. Mythology, wrote Cambpell, “is the song. It is the song of the imagination, inspired by the energies of the body”. The song of the universe is perceived by heroes who must translate it for us: it has a vital importance in all great mythologies, and is a bearer of life. And as a matter of fact, Cash was often reminded by his mother that his voice was a gift given by God, “My job”, he wrote years later, “was to care for it and use it well; I was its bearer, not its owner”. Besides, a Pygmy legend has a very similar moral: a man refused to feed a bird his son brought him, and killed it, but as he killed the bird, he instantly killed his song, and therefore killed himself. In other words, myth is something to be heard, not seen. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung believed that myth lives in our unconscious and for Campbell the creative process itself is influenced by the unconscious. The artist is thus guided by the inaccessible part of his mind toward something new and different, and he will have to tell its stories. But when people will eventually hear these stories, they will instantly recognise that fragments of them, if not all of them, represent things they had lived and wanted to express but without finding the proper words. That is to say, the artist sees, the people listen. The mythical dialog works that way, and nowadays only poets have the power to wield a language metaphorical enough to express myths. Cash was a poet and an artist, and like Hamlet (Act II, Scene II), he held a mirror in front of Nature “to show Virtue her own feature”.
Let us now have a look at the mythological journey itself, and how Cash reacted to it. The hero does not start such a journey without reasons, or only because he has decided to do something with his life. Something must take him out of his social sphere and put him in front of tremendous difficulties that might very well break him. In other words, the first stage is what Campbell designates as the call to adventure: destiny intervenes and forces the hero to explore the unknown, and that is most important, for the hero does not seek adventure, it comes to him. But whatever the call is, the young hero remains free and can choose to ignore it, which would have however catastrophic consequences. He would no longer be the saviour, but the one to be saved, hence the Latin saying, “Time Jesum transeuntem et non revertentem” – dread the passage of Jesus for he does not return.
Johnny Cash said on many occasions that his childhood was difficult and that it forged his character, that “a way of life produced a certain kind of music”, and that was therefore at the origin of his heroic journey. He heard the call when he was very young on the radio, and he knew instantly that he had to follow it, no matter what would happen. He desired more than anything to sing on the radio, but before he could go on the road he had to suffer a period of exile. And indeed, the human hero “has to face a long period of obscurity. This is a time of extreme danger, impediment, or disgrace” and requires a great strength: Hercules killed the deadly serpent sent by the goddess Hera when he was still in the cradle, but Cash did more than that. He went through one of the most difficult situations one can imagine, namely the tragic death of his brother, Jack. Jack was not only his big brother, but his first hero and he described him as “my best friend, my big buddy, my mentor, and my protector”. Something usually takes us out of the comfort and the naiveté of our childhood world, and that something is suffering. It is the first formative experience one has to deal with, and Jack’s death was the great traumatic event of Cash’s journey. That day his father took him in the smokehouse and showed him Jack’s clothes, all drenched in blood, and indicated where the saw had cut him open. To be confronted with death in that manner, to lose his mentor, the first person who helped him on his quest, forced him to look in the eyes of the Whale - that would swallow him years later - for the first time. There is no other way around grief, “you can dodge all you want, but sooner or later you just have to go into it, through it, and, hopefully come out the other side.” He would have to spend years in exile in Arkansas, before he found the strength to leave and start his mythical journey, but the life of a hero is made of trials. They test him continually and help him to transcend his human nature, to reveal if he has the courage to rise above his fellow human beings. That is where myths are important; they help the hero to accept what happens to him, hence the fact that Gospel songs played an important role in Cash’s life. Since Jack’s death, songs like “Peace in the Valley” or “I’ll Fly Away” were powerful enough to drag him out of the darkness, even though it would take a higher power to restore him to the world on different occasions.
There are, however, an infinite number of calls to adventure, even though one is usually enough. In the case of Johnny Cash, the situation is more complex, since he embodied throughout his life various stages of the heroic cycle, living them again and again on different occasions. But as a child, the music call was seconded by something that is psychologically primordial, the father quest. That quest is one call among others, but it is a major hero adventure for a young man. Athena told Odysseus’s son Telemachus, “Go find your father”, and so he went; it is the adventure of finding what your career is going to be, what your nature is, what is at the origin of your existence. Cash wanted to sing; his mother understood that and encouraged him as much as she could (she paid for singing lessons and called his voice, the gift), but his father had a very different opinion. He kept telling his son that what he heard on the radio was fake, that he was wasting his time (“That’s going to keep you from making a living. You’ll never do any good as long as you’ve got that music on the mind”), because all he really needed was an additional pair of hands in the cotton fields, not a boy whose mind was filled with higher dreams. But even if his father was sometimes hard with him, Cash never gave up and confessed years later, “I hated hearing that, but maybe it served a purpose. I badly wanted to prove him wrong”. In other words, that father quest (which can be real or metaphorical in the case where the hero looks for the father inside himself) may be considered as the real motivation behind music.
Six years after the death of his brother, Cash finally left home and joined the Air Force. However, what happened at the beginning of the 1950s cannot really be considered as a traditional stage of the heroic journey; it was merely a rite of passage from childhood to manhood. He learned with other men of his age, “how to cuss, how to look for women, how to drink and fight” which eventually led to his marriage with Vivan Liberto with whom he would have four daughters. The real journey started again when he moved with his wife to Memphis and decided to do everything possible to become a musician. At that stage of the heroic cycle, the young hero encounters a protective figure, an old man – or a virgin in many Christian myths – who gives him the weapon or the protection necessary to kill the dragon and cross the first threshold. In his life, Cash met many similar figures, but the first important one is behind any doubt George Bates. Cash said about him in his second autobiography,
That he would describe Bates in that way is particularly interesting, for the hero, if he has answered the call courageously, finds himself helped by what Campbell used to call an invisible hand. That is to say, all the forces of the world seem to be helping the hero accomplish his task, “in so far as the hero’s act coincides with that for which his society itself is ready, he seems to ride on the great rhythm of the historical process”. Bates gave him what he needed to start playing, and after he met Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant there was absolutely nothing that could have stopped him. Sam Phillips was just waiting further up on the road, and helped him record his first Sun songs, “Hey Porter” and “Cry! Cry! Cry!”.
The first threshold was thus crossed with the help of Bates and Phillips. Once this stage is accomplished, the hero leaves definitely behind him security and has no other way but to complete his journey through the darkness and danger. But here comes his first real challenge, for he must now face the keeper of the threshold, a dragon or an ogre that for Cash took the familiar and haunting shape of little pills. Once in the music business, he was proposed amphetamines and various other drugs and just like a mythological hero he had different solutions. In face of the monster, he can either destroy the threat, be killed in the fight (which is then followed by the usual crucifixion/resurrection myth) or negotiate with it. Sadly enough, Cash negotiated with the monster and started what he described as “an ongoing struggle”. Crossing the threshold is a form of self-annihilation, and he literally started destroying himself, those close to him, his voice, and therefore his dream. His negotiation with the monster had started to drag him deeper and deeper in the darkness until he eventually became a shadow, “a walking vision of death”.
But like all heroes, the transition from the crossing of the threshold to the rebirth is symbolised by the belly of the Whale. He is swallowed by the unknown and disappears in a state close to death. Red Ridinghood had the wolf, Joseph the well, Jesus his tomb, Jonas the whale and Cash had the Nickajack Cave. He suffered so much from his conciliation with the monster that he decided to end it all, and abandon himself to God:
However, the hero cannot abandon, and if he does, the world will bring him back from his supernatural adventures. In the Japanese mythology, for instance, the sun goddess Amaterasu, terrified by the terrible deeds of her brother Susanowo, gave up on the world and chose solitude. She went in a cave to hide herself and thus deprived the world from her light. The other gods consequently tried to bring her back, and organised a feast under a great tree where the goddess Uzume started singing. And there, the legend says, they laughed so much that Amaterasu got out of the cave to see why the world she dreaded so much was so jolly. A mighty god then grasped her hand and attached her at the entrance of the cave with a mighty rope, the shimenawa. Amaterasu was thus free to retire to her cave every night, but could not abandon the world any more.
That is also what happened to Cash. There, in the utter darkness, he experienced suddenly a deep change. When he thought himself as far from God as it was humanly possible, he felt at peace. He writes that he felt God’s presence: He did not talk to him, but he felt His hand giving him courage and comfort and understood that the decision to die was not his to make. Even though he had lost his way, he started crawling back, blind and exhausted until he saw the sunlight. And as he got out of the cave, “June was there with a basket of food and drink, and my mother. I was confused. I thought she was in California. I was right; she had been. ‘I knew there was something wrong’, she said. ‘I had to come and find you.’”
Once the first threshold crossed, the hero cannot defeat what threatens him alone: he must fight by himself, but he can walk with someone. Usually, that someone is personified by a woman, by a meeting with a goddess that will give him the support he needs. “As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life”, explains Campbell, “the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more that he is yet capable of comprehending.” For Cash, that ‘goddess’ was June Carter who did everything she could to help him. Many people believe she saved him from the drugs, but that is not true: she did help him, but only by giving him the support he needed. One cannot be saved from self-destruction by anybody but oneself. In the heroic cycle, this goddess is “mother, sister, mistress, bride”, and that is precisely what became June: “she said we were soul mates, she and I, and that she would fight for me with all her might, however she could. She did that by being my companion, friend, and lover, and by praying for me”.
With June on his side, Cash was thus able to come back from the belly of the Whale and return to the world of the living. Indeed, in order to survive the hero must realise that both worlds, the one he knows and the one of the gods, are the same. They are only two dimensions of a unique world. That is the secret of his journey, the lesson he must now teach to his fellow human beings. But the hero’s journey does not end so easily, all his trials will have been for nothing if he cannot face the return threshold. Just like Dante who faced God and then did not know how to transcribe with mortal words what he saw and felt, the hero must instruct in a simple way other mortals. He must fight them, persuade them, for they will not believe him easily. Of course, he will be tempted to give up. After all, why should he reintegrate such a world after all he experienced? But the shimenawa will stop him from deserting.
Cash did not desert the world after his return from the cave. On the contrary, his come back was so powerful that he changed the face of the music business for ever with one live album, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968). But he did not stop there, for he became conscious of his role, and embraced his destiny. As I have mentioned, he was not only a mythical hero, but also a myth-maker. He embodied all the American legends from the frontier myths with its outlaws to Dixieland, from the Native Americans to his Christian faith. He was all these things at the same time. Indeed, he cultivated his outlaw image all his life to the point where people actually believed he had served time in prison. However, that was just a part of himself, a glimpse of the darkness surrounded him and that is why he was close to convicted criminals, made concerts in major penitentiaries, and sung songs like “Folsom Prison Blues”, “San Quentin”, “Cocaine Blues”, “Delia’s Gone”, “Banks of the Ohio”, “25 Minutes to Go” and many, many others.
Besides, in 1962 he met Peter LaFarge – the Hopi composer of the song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” - who inspired him the album Bitter Tears (1964) in which he strongly defended the rights of the Native Americans. This album did not make him popular, and was even banned from various radios, but he did not care, because he had to pass a message. In a similar way, when he started working on Johnny Cash Sings the Ballad of the True West (1965), he immersed himself in the frontier tradition and started living like a cowboy, “I’d put on my cowboy clothes – real ones, antiques – and go out to the desert or an abandoned ranch somewhere, trying to feel how they felt back then, be how they were”. On The Johnny Cash Show, which ABC broadcast between 1969 and 1971, he navigated through all those myths and even created a special section called “Ride this Train”, where he visited various stages of the American history, but also of the society he lived in, thus giving a right to be heard to the “Little Man”. It was again on the Johnny Cash Show that he definitely anchored his legend in our minds with the song “Man in Black”, where he proclaimed,
Nearly thirty years later, he was still wearing black as a symbol of rebellion “against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others’ ideas”.
He also took advantage of his time on the television to announce publicly that he believed in Jesus Christ, which did not please the production of the show. However, he never did it because he wanted to convert people; using his fame to spread his faith among his fans was not his intention (“I’m not a prophet, and I’m not a priest./I’m not a wise man who’s come from the East”). He thought a lot about it, and wanted to be honest with the people who kept asking him if he was religious. His friend and spiritual advisor Billy Graham told him clearly that he was no evangelist and that he should be faithful to his music. And for Johnny Cash, to be faithful to his music, meant being faithful to Gospel music.
For years, Cash kept true to his heroic mission, but he eventually managed to break the shimenawa that prevented him from loosing himself again in the cave. Had he destroy the keeper of the first threshold instead of negotiating with it, the situation might have been different, but darkness took him again. “As dreams that were momentous by night”, writes Campbell, “and may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes”. In the 1980s, the message Cash was delivering started to be ignored, not so much by the people, for his concerts never stopped to be popular, but by the music industry. In that decade, Columbia Records made little effort to promote his music properly, and he consequently became invisible which strangely coincides with the return of the monster. Drugs and alcohol started haunting him again after he was administered painkillers for an injury caused by the attack of an ostrich. He metaphorically returned to his cave where he sought death again: “Mine wasn’t soft-core, pop-psychology self-hatred; it was a profound, violent, daily holocaust of revulsion and shame, and one way or another it had to stop”. But once more, the hero is not allowed to give up. And just like the gods that called back Amaterasu, his family and friends made an intervention and convinced him to go to the Betty Ford Clinic.
However, change is at the heart of mythology, and therefore of the hero: while the monster is the champion of fact and ponderosity, the hero embraces movement and creativity. When the world does not know how to process the message, the hero meets a sort of secondary hero who will revitalise the tradition, he “reinterprets the tradition and makes it valid as a living experience today instead of a lot of outdated clichés”. Rick Rubin consequently gave Cash the chance to adapt his message to a new world with his American Recordings albums.
Before we take a look at the last part of the heroic cycle, let us see if the call to adventure gave Cash some answers. I have suggested that the father quest was an essential factor in his journey, and Cash himself wrote that he wanted to prove that his father was wrong. In most mythologies, the quest can have various endings. Usually, if the father grants his benediction to the hero, he will return to the world either as an emissary (Moses), or with the certitude that the father and he are the same person (Jesus). Those heroes fall into the category of “World Redeemers”. However, if the father image is corrupted, if the quest fails, then the hero himself will be transformed and become a tyrant – such was the case of Nimrod and Herod, for instance.
When Cash came to write about his life, he thought about his father quest and its eventual success or failure and said,
He understood that his destructive nature came from his father, even though he never denied that he was entirely responsible for his actions. In other words, whether he wanted it or not, his whole life had been shaped by his father quest, by his desire to show him what he was capable of. But, as his life and journey came to an end, he started to think about his redemption. His father became religious after Jack’s death and he wondered if he was sincere, if God had forgiven him. But if that was true about his father, what about himself?
Cash figured out at the end of his journey that, in a certain way, he was his father. Just like Eric Clapton who sung that he had never been so close to his father than when he was looking into his son’s eyes, Cash concluded his father quest with an answer that he had refused to accept for a long time.
If the hero accepts to face so many dangers throughout his life, it is because he has no fear of death. When one reaches a certain age, when the body starts to fail, it is necessary to realise that it is merely a vehicle for the light that inhabits our heart, and myths are especially important in that respect. Indeed, the earliest myths known to mankind appeared with the apparition of the grave, when people started to pay homage to the dead, thinking that there could very well be something after life. And so, when you understand that life is a cycle, that death is not the end, but just the prefiguration of a rebirth, then you can accept your own demise. The true hero knows this because he has faced death throughout his journey, and is prepared to meet her again. Cash mentioned many times, despite his declining health, that he was in perfect harmony with Nature, that winter is followed by spring: “I can feel the rhythms of the earth, the growing and the blooming and the fading and the dying, in my bones”. After 1997, Cash knew that his life would end very soon and consequently orchestrated his own passing. In his last albums, he sings again and again about death, and redemption, sometimes laughing about it (“I’m Leavin’ Now”, “Like the 309”...), refusing to give up (“I Won’t Back Down”), with optimism (“Further On Up the Road”, “We’ll Meet Again”...), but also very often in a heartbreaking mood (“Solitary Man”, “The Man Comes Around”, “Hurt”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”...). But for the life-eager hero, death is nothing, and can be postponed as long as necessary. For many of his close friends, if June had not so suddenly passed away, he would have stayed alive to take care of his wife, but four months after her death he decided to follow her to the land of the dead, thus completing his journey.
Johnny Cash left this world the 12 September, 2003. A Friday. Interestingly enough, Friday has always been the day heroes die: Richard II was deadly wounded by an arrow on Friday, 26 March 1199; Christ was crucified a Friday; and from the Chanson de Guillaume (XIIth century) to Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1469-1470), great knights have always passed away that particular day (Sir Bors, Sir Hector...). In the same way, Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy were also assassinated a Friday.
Yet what is death to the mythological hero? According to the legend, Charlemagne did not die, he is merely sleeping and will awake in his country’s hour of need. Cash has joined his wife in the other world, but he did not die and he reminded us of that with his last album, seven years after he passed away, where he sings with an otherworldly voice, “There ain’t no grave can hold my body down”. The Man in Black’s presence remains hauntingly present, even nearly a decade after his death, and so is his message. He transcended his role as a musician and conquered and embraced all the aspects of the experience of the human life. Johnny Cash was, and is the representation of the hero figure who has “died a modern man; but as eternal man – perfected, unspecific, universal man – he has been reborn. His solemn task and deed therefore [...] is to return to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed”. He did all that, not as a prophet, not as a priest or as a teacher, but as a singer of songs.
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 Fame is dangerous if it has no other purpose than self-glorification. Most of the celebrities of the past century worked for themselves and had no desire to give something back to the society that generated them. Cash was different, which explains why he is so interesting. In the same way, John Lennon was another sort of hero, a “working class hero”, as he would have put it. With or without the Beatles, he was an innovator who turned out to be in perfect harmony with his time (see Campbell, 1988/1991: 163-164).
 He complains in his second autobiography that all the business meetings that were expected of him enslaved him. He very much hated having to hide in hotels and limousines because it kept him away, not from his loved ones, but from strangers, from the people (Cash 1997/2006: 59).