The Theology of Johnny Cash: Part 3, The Man in Black

Beyond how Johnny Cash's music speaks to both saints and sinners--more specifically to the saint and the sinner in each of us--the other prominent theme in Johnny Cash's music is that of solidarity.

Cash's music always tried to speak with and for the marginalized, forgotten, oppressed, broken and criminal. Cash's music often came from the margins. Cash tried to speak for people who had no voice.

And as a sign of this solidarity with those on the margins in the early '70s Cash took to wearing all black clothing during his concerts, in sharp contrast to the flashy fringes and rhinestones of his Nashville contemporaries. Johnny Cash dressed like he was going to a funeral. Dressing in black was a sign of grief and mourning, especially during Vietnam as the war wore on and the death toll ticked up.

Cash summarized the symbolism of his clothing in his famous song "The Man in Black":
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. 
Personally, "The Man in Black" isn't my favorite song that expresses Cash's solidary with the downtrodden. I love the theology of the song. I don't like the rhyme or music all that much.

My personal favorite song expressing this theme is a song Cash wrote for his album Orange Blossom Special entitled "All God's People Ain't Free." When you hear "All God's People Ain't Free" you'd think it was a traditional Negro Spiritual. But it was a Johnny Cash original:
I'd sing more about more of this land
But all God's children ain't free
I'd open up every door I can
'Cause all God's children ain't free

I met a beaten broken man
He shovels dirt but got no land
And he held out his hand to me
All God's children ain't free

I'd sing along to a silly song
But all God's children ain't free
I'm gonna sing a blues for the men they done wrong
'Cause all God's children ain't free

Mister, how about the man you condemn to die
By taking everything that he's livin' by?
And reject him from society
All God's children ain't free
No, reject him from society
All God's children ain't free

I'd be happy walking any street
But all God's children ain't free
I'd have a smile for all I meet
But all God's children ain't free

I'd whistle down the road but I wouldn't feel right
I'd hear somebody cryin' out at night
From a sharecropper's shack or penitentiary
All God's children ain't free

From a sharecropper's shack or penitentiary
All God's children ain't free
Now that's a freedom song.

This theme of solidarity--grieving alongside and for the hungry, the addicted, the criminal, the poor, the old, the beaten down, the dead--is the other great theological theme in Cash's music. And there's not much more to add, theologically, beyond Cash's own lyrics in "The Man in Black."

So rather than simply repeat the theme what I'd like to do is illustrate the theme in the next four posts by looking closely at four specific populations and how Cash expressed solidarity with each. How Cash tried to be "the man in black" for each.

We'll start in the next post with the Native American Indians.

Part 4: Bitter Tears

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10 thoughts on “The Theology of Johnny Cash: Part 3, The Man in Black”

  1. I'm a bit stunned after reading the lyrics to "The Man In Black." I watched a documentary on Pete Seeger recently and there was a scene where Johnny Cash is talking with Seeger about appearing on Cash's variety show. This appearance was a daring move on Cash's part, since Seeger had been black listed for years by the Conservatives of his day ( Cash's show aired late 60's to beginning 70's and I remember watching it as a kid). Their filmed conversation had overtones of a secret meeting.....

    And there it is in plain view, a critique of the American life with nary a punch pulled; pricking holes in the patriotic dreamscape of the day, and ironically, sung most by the people who despised Seeger.

    I wonder if there's also a parallel here to the phenomenon that puzzles sociologists when people vote for policies that work against them: everything about the tune sounds right, so the lyrics must be too....

  2. In so many ways Cash reminds me of Will Campbell. Richard, do you know if Campbell and Cash ever crossed paths?

    I've been meditating lately on the reality that there must be a part of God that is always weeping. If the cross of Jesus is the sharpest picture we have of God and his solidarity with humanity (echoed hauntingly in Elie Wiesel's story of the boy hanging from the gallows), than it would seem that some part of God would always be weeping over the pain, misery, and injustice in the world (In my imagination I picture each member of the trinity holding a turn in mourning). This leads me to wonder if there shouldn't be a part of the church that is always weeping, always engaged in the disciplined sacrament of weeping with and for the pain of the world. To put it another way, to have a part of the church that is always wearing black. Within our congregations we could take turns with this discipline, so as to diffuse the weariness of the task, but it seems a fitting task if we are to be the body of Christ in the world.

  3. Here's a link to a great documentary about Cash made by the BBC:

  4. Thanks, Richard, for this series on J. Cash. Recently, wrote an outline on "The Mission Statement of Jesus" based on Luke 4:16-20. So much of what Cash addressed is parallel: to preach the good news to the poor; announce a pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind; to set the burdened and battered free and announce, "This is God's year to act." Two of the six questions we'll be asked at the judgment (Matthew 25) are: "How many prisoners did you go see?" And "how many strangers at the gate did you welcome?" I think Johnny will do quite well on these that are most often neglected by most of the "good people." He was also an advocate for the hungry, sick, naked, and thirsty, the "least of these." I'll bet prisoners will be one of your categories.

  5. I'm loving this series. I think I really need to go out and buy a Cash CD now. Music has always been important to my spiritual life. In seminary, I once wrote a "theology of Pink Floyd."

    I'd also love to see your take on theology and Bruce Springsteen!

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