Books of the Day:

Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash
Michael Stewart Foley (Basic Books $40, 355 pages)

Historian Michael Stewart Foley attempts to make Johnny Cash an exemplar of the “politics of empathy” in his biographical examination of the political views of the famous country singer. Fans may recall the patriotic Johnny Cash that chastised hippies and spoke out in favor of veterans, befriending both Richard Nixon and Billy Graham. Others might recall his advocacy in both music and deed for the poor, imprisoned, and native Americans, and the now iconic picture of Cash giving the finger to the camera during one performance. Foley illustrates that Johnny Cash is not easily ideologically pigeonholed, yet at times the author seems to strain himself fitting Cash into positions he does not comfortably fit. No one can dispute that Cash was a witness to the downtrodden, but whether he could be made out to be an ally to blacks in the way Foley paints him is more debateable. Foley excuses several unfortunate incidents (using the n-word, writing a song with a pro-slaveowner point of view) as products of his time while grossly exaggerating small gestures as grand nods to civil rights. 

More annoying that making civil rights mountains out of gesture molehills, is Foley’s obvious dislike of conservatism, and especially the Christian Right. Foley seems to apologize at times for the fact that Cash did not speak out against the Christian Right in America’s culture wars and hints that Cash might even have shared some of their “patriarchal” views regarding family. A reader might be left wondering, however, why a public Christian such as Cash, who felt the need to witness to the degradations of poverty and imprisonment, was silent on the issue of abortion, to name just one of many issues that Cash never publicly addressed. 

Foley explains how Cash’s experience growing up in poor, rural Arkansas and serving in the military, fighting drug addiction and the temptation of infidelity, coloured his music and, when he chose to make public statements, advocacy. But at times, Foley is guilty of reading too much into small biographical details. Still Citizen Cash is full of interesting tidbits and can be enlightening about the influences on one of country music’s great artists, but there was no need to make him a model of a politics of empathy which, as Foley more than illustrates, was usually motivated in little more than Johnny Cash’s feeling.