Being The Man in Black: It's Harder Than You Think

I recently presented with my good friend Mark Love at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. We did an evening session entitled "A Whirlwind in a Thorn Tree: The Music and Theology of Johnny Cash."

It was a fun session. Thanks to everyone who attended. I am kicking myself, however. During the session I forgot to share one of my favorite Johnny Cash quotes from my son Aidan.

I listen to a lot of Johnny Cash in the car. A lot. So the boys have soaked up quite a bit of Cash's discography.

One day driving in the the car to school with me Aidan says, "Johnny Cash sings songs about murder, prisons, trains...and Jesus."

I think that's one of the best descriptions of Cash's music I've ever heard. Way to go, son.

For my part of the session out at Pepperdine I talked about the theme of solidarity, standing with the outcasts, the marginalized and the down-and-out. I was surprised how few in the audience knew that Johnny Cash dressed in black as a sign of solidarity, as a symbol of grief. Most in the audience thought the black attire was an outlaw thing. No doubt it was, but as the lyrics to the song Man in Black describe:
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.

Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.

Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black
The black dress was a sign of solidarity, funeral attire as a symbol of weeping with those who weep.

After making these observations about the theme of solidarity in the music of Johnny Cash I wanted to complicate the picture a bit. It's easy for fans to fall into fawning hagiography when it comes to Johnny Cash. No doubt, there is much to admire. But the picture of solidarity is complicated.

One example of this complication comes from the story of Glen Sherley.

A day or so before the famous Live at Folsom Prison concert Cash was given the song "Greystone Chapel" written by an inmate at Folsom, Glen Sherley. Singing a song written by an inmate captured Cash's imagination given his penchant for showing solidarity. Cash decided to end the concert by singing "Greystone Chapel," and before the song Cash shared that it was written by Glen Sherley, an inmate there at Folsom. There's a famous photo of that moment--Cash shaking Sherley's hand from the stage. It's the photo you see above.

After having made a connection with Cash, and being made famous by the album, Sherley was eventually granted parole. And Cash was there to meet Glen at the gates of the prison when he was released. And Sherley, given his musical talent, began to preform with Cash on tour.

It's a wonderful, feel-good story. By showing solidarity in singing "Greystone Chapel" Johnny Cash saves Glen Sherley.


Over time on tour Sherley began showing sociopathic tendencies, making violent threats to members of the crew and band. Worried about Sherley's potential for violence Cash cut Sherley loose, removing him from touring and other projects.

From there Sherley drifted.

And on May 11, 1978, seven years after being released from Folsom prison, Glen Sherley shot himself in the head.

What went wrong? Was Sherley a sociopath who used Cash to get a release from prison? Did Cash fail Sherley by not sticking with him longer?

It's hard to answer those questions. Opinions differ. But I shared this story at Pepperdine because I wanted to make a point about solidarity.

Let's not romanticize solidarity. Solidarity is absolutely necessary, a non-negotiable for a follower of Jesus. But solidarity doesn't always end well. Solidarity often ends in heartbreak and tragedy.

We can all pile up story after story, how after hard years of walking alongside someone, pouring our lives into someone, emptying our bank accounts for someone, how it all fell apart in the end.

Solidarity doesn't guarantee a Happily Ever After. If you live a life standing in solidarity with people you're going to, eventually, have some Glen Sherley stories.

Being a Man or a Woman in Black, standing in solidarity with others, it's harder and more heartbreaking than you think.

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7 thoughts on “Being The Man in Black: It's Harder Than You Think”

  1. Wow. Didn't expect the conclusion from where this post started. This is spot on.

  2. It is so much messier than you expect. Though, as you have mentioned before, it may save your faith. Maybe.

  3. It will. A lot depends upon if solidarity gets wrapped up on some sort of hero or Messiah complex. Basically, we don't like to grieve. Solidarity isn't saving people from tears, it's weeping with those who weep. Solidarity is what Jean Vanier calls accompaniment, or what William Stringfellow calls the sacrament of mere presence. When we keep those firmly in view our egos aren't as rocked by the failure to get the Hollywood ending.

  4. Cash's life was messy. Divorce drugs alcohol wild living. While oversimplified-the act of redemming Cash from this life-restoring him-was also messy. God bless June Carter Cash for helping heal his brokenness. In the drama of his life we can see parallels of X'a mercy and redemption in our lives. From the movie Walk the Line my favorite scene was when Johnny got his tractor stuck. In a spew of of expletives in front of the righteous Carters June's mom tells June to go to him-that in fact she is already down there with Cash in his dysfunctional life-and June goes. And there we see a great example of X's incarnation-of leaving the protections of heaven to make his dwelling among us. The act of reconciliation cannot/could not be done from afar. That ministry that Paul says has been given to us also requires us to get messy-down in the dirt and the grime-out from the protections of our favorite pews-to participate in reconciling the creation to the Creator-one on one.

  5. This echoes the solidarity of Jesus with Judas. Knowing that Judas was going to betray he washes his feet and serves him anyway? Church theology has done backflips to try to explain this and make Jesus invulnerable. The truth of this is a human truth...solidarity can be painful and heartbreaking yet that is no reason to abandon it.

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