DOLLY YOUR ENTHUSIASM (22)
March 7, 2023
One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of favorite Country singles from the Sixties (1964–1973). Series edited by Josh Glenn. BONUS: Check out the DOLLY YOUR ENTHUSIASM playlist on Spotify.
JOHNNY CASH | “THE MAN IN BLACK” | 1971
There’s usually some popstar who gets called “the poet of a generation.” But Johnny Cash was always more of a prophet.
Introducing “The Man in Black” in a concert at Vanderbilt University, he let the students know the words had come straight out of the conversations he’d been having with them on campus all that weekend. A year before, he’d debuted “San Quentin” in front of an audience-full of prisoners whose own real talk, he told them, he’d based that song on. Like that one, “The Man in Black” is musical journalism; not the “soundtrack of a generation” either, this is a live feed from the frontlines.
It’s delivered, though, as a revelation for the ages. Anthemic yet reserved, grounded in Cash’s trademark two-note rhythm that allows a simple, profound message to be taken anywhere, and lets his voice, his sermon, swoop to troubled rumblings and raise to wailing proclamation.
And yet, it remains conversational; this, unlike so many political songs of the era, was the singer himself, as much as society, being called to account. About a week and a year from the unimaginable age of 40, he was singing to a young generation being shipped off to war, executed in the streets and gunned down on campus, and letting them know where he stood. The roar of recognition that goes up in the crowd when he first sings “I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been/Each week we lose a hundred fine young men” is palpable, a reference to the still-grinding Vietnam war that needed no further explanation to this audience, and was a moment when they were openly listening and finally feeling heard.
People often wondered why Cash performed clad in black, a look then associated only with Halloween horror, and still shocking when first adopted by punks and goths a generation later. Youth of the time were used to being expected to explain their hair and clothing, their cultural tastes and sexual norms, their assertion of identity and resistance to tradition. This was the community Cash chose to first express his solemn protest and inner unease to, about imposed poverty and indefinite incarceration, about callous progress and unending war, signified in a grieving garb he wouldn’t remove while any work was left undone: “I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back/’Til things are brighter, I’m the man in black.”
DOLLY YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | David Cantwell on Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s WE FOUND IT | Lucy Sante on Johnny & June Carter Cash’s JACKSON | Mimi Lipson on George Jones’s WALK THROUGH THIS WORLD WITH ME | Steacy Easton on Olivia Newton-John’s LET ME BE THERE | Annie Zaleski on Tammy Wynette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E | Carl Wilson on Tom T. Hall’s THAT’S HOW I GOT TO MEMPHIS | Josh Glenn on Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen’s BACK TO TENNESSEE | Elizabeth Nelson on Skeeter Davis’s I DIDN’T CRY TODAY | Carlo Rotella on Buck Owens’ TOGETHER AGAIN | Lynn Peril on Roger Miller’s THE MOON IS HIGH | Erik Davis on Kris Kristofferson’s SUNDAY MORNIN’ COMIN’ DOWN | Francesca Royster on Linda Martell’s BAD CASE OF THE BLUES | Amanda Martinez on Bobbie Gentry’s FANCY | Erin Osmon on John Prine’s PARADISE | Douglas Wolk on The Byrds’ DRUG STORE TRUCK DRIVIN’ MAN | David Warner on Willie Nelson’s WHISKEY RIVER | Will Groff on Tanya Tucker’s DELTA DAWN | Natalie Weiner on Dolly Parton’s IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS (WHEN TIMES WERE BAD) | Charlie Mitchell on Stonewall Jackson’s I WASHED MY HANDS IN MUDDY WATER | Nadine Hubbs on Dolly Parton’s COAT OF MANY COLORS | Jada Watson on Loretta Lynn’s DON’T COME HOME A DRINKIN’ (WITH LOVIN’ ON YOUR MIND) | Adam McGovern on Johnny Cash’s THE MAN IN BLACK | Stephen Thomas Erlewine on Dick Curless’s A TOMBSTONE EVERY MILE | Alan Scherstuhl on Waylon Jennings’s GOOD HEARTED WOMAN | Alex Brook Lynn on Bobby Bare’s THE WINNER. PLUS: Peter Doyle on Jerry Reed’s GUITAR MAN | Brian Berger on Charley Pride’s IS ANYBODY GOING TO SAN ANTONE.
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