Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on September 15, 2003
Johnny Cash died on Friday in Nashville. The man whose voice sounded like a big freight train coming is gone. The joint concurrent resolution that I introduce, I introduce today on behalf of my colleagues, the Majority Leader, Sen. Bill Frist from Tennessee and the senators from Arkansas, Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor and the distinguished senator from Kansas, Pat Roberts, who probably knows the words to "I walk the line," as do most of us all over the world. Johnny Cash lived just a little bit outside of Nashville, and I was in his home one time, and I asked him, "Johnny, how many nights do you perform on the road?" He looked at me with some surprise. He said, "Oh, about 300 a year." "Why do you do that?" I asked in amazement. He looked back at me, equally amazed. "That's what I do," he said. All weekend the radio stations have been playing the songs of the man who performed 300 times a year for all of us — the man in black. Stores all over Nashville and all over the world were stocking up on Johnny Cash memorabilia this weekend. So much has been said in the newspapers and on TV that one wonders what else we Senators might usefully say about Johnny Cash. What could I say better, for example, than what Steven Greenhouse wrote of Johnny on page one of the New York Times on Saturday: "Beginning in the mid-1950's, when he made his first records for the Sun label, Mr. Cash forged a lean, hard-bitten country-folk music that at its most powerful seemed to erase the lines between singing, storytelling and grueling life experience. Born in poverty in Arkansas at the height of the Depression, he was country music's foremost poet of the working poor. His stripped-down songs described the lives of coal miners and sharecroppers, convicts and cowboys, railroad workers and laborers." "Foremost poet of the working poor." Mr. Greenhouse was not the only one who wrote beautifully about the "foremost poet of the working poor." So did Louie Estrada and David Segal in the Washington Post. So did Craig Haverhurst and several other writers in the Tennessean in Nashville, as well as Jon Sparks in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. I have not doubt in cities all over this country there were writers who were writing the best they could write about the music and the sound of Johnny Cash. Why do we wait until Johnny Cash dies to write of his poetry? John R. Cash is not the only such poet who ever lived in Nashville, Tennessee. Bob Dylan, Johnny's friend, once said Hank Williams was America's greatest poet. At last count, there are several thousand songwriters living in Nashville struggling to write poetry, some of which will be known and remembered everywhere in the world one day. Alice Randall, a Nashville writer of songs and books, once observed that it is odd that there is so little serious literary criticism of the poetry of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and other country music songwriters. The outpouring of articles that accompanied Johnny's death suggests that most of the serious criticism of the poetry found in country music is done by pop music critics in our major newspapers. But why is there not a department or a chair or at least a conference occasionally dedicated to criticism of the poetry or at least the literature of country music? Literary criticism is a fundamental part of departments of English in universities all across America. Some of the most famous of these were among the "Fugitives" who met during the 1920's at Vanderbilt University: Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Andrew Lytle were some of those literary critics who began their careers then. If Vanderbilt University is such a center of literary criticism, then why has Vanderbilt not done more about the literature that is country music? Or why does Belmont University in Nashville or the University of Tennessee or University of Memphis not do it? These Nashville—and Memphis - songwriters are certainly among the most famous poets in the world. Why do we wait for The New York Times and Bob Dylan to tell us that Johnny Cash and Hank Williams are also among the best poets when Vanderbilt University, among others, lives right there among them? There are hundreds of good English professors in dozens of northeastern universities writing thousands of pages of criticism about average poets, while our Tennessee universities are doing almost nothing to write about poets who others say are among the best in the world. We have had a habit in Tennessee of not being willing to look right in front of our own noses to celebrate what is special about us. We sometimes worry about producing only average Chopin, when right down the block lives the best harmonica player in the world. I am all for Chopin, and for Beethoven, and for Mozart, and for Bach. I have played their music on the piano with symphonies all across Tennessee. But I have also performed with those symphonies some of the most beautiful of the unique American music we call country music. The death of our friend Johnny Cash, "the poet of the working poor," is a good time for our Tennessee universities to consider whether they might want to celebrate our excellence by encouraging literary criticism of the literature of some of the best known poets in the world, our songwriters. Our universities might discover what others have suggested, that some of our songwriters are also among the best in the world.