April 18, 2013

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In 1967, a man stumbled into Nickajack Cave. He was a man who had made his name rambling around playing a flat-top box and singing about trains and guns and prisons. He sang about loose women, drunken Indians and mad dogs. He sang about shoeshine boys and floods. Chain gangs and men swinging from gallows. Railroads and rivers. He sang about waking up in a Chattanooga jail one morning and said he taught the weeping willow how to cry. He ran with Elvis Presley through the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, singing, ‘I don’t care if I do—die—do—die—do’ from Memphis to New Orleans. He went to sing for the convicts in California’s Folsom Prison He carried his flat-top box up the backstage steps and looked out over a room full of murderers, robbers and thieves. He wore a black suit. He saddled up his guitar the right way, walked out to the microphone and said, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

But in 1967, the music men in Nashville were saying that the Man in Black was through. He stood six foot two, weighed 150 pounds and had long been strung out on cocaine, pills and booze. Johnny Cash was sick. He had been in and out of hospitals and jails for years and had cancelled countless concerts because he was too wasted to stand on a stage and sing. By the beginning of October that year he was on the edge of death. He had been awake for days and hadn’t eaten anything other than amphetamines by the handful. He was whiskey drunk and strung-out and he knew that his career, as well as his life, was near its end.

He left his home in Hendersonville, Tenn., one day that October and drove east for an hour or so. He parked his old Jeep on the side of the road then staggered through the thorns and brush down to the mouth of Nickajack Cave. He walked into the blackness of that cave until he could walk no more. He then went to his hands and knees and crawled until he couldn’t crawl anymore. Like a sick animal, he was looking for somewhere to die.

We all know of that darkness which was in Johnny Cash—a darkness that is not explained by the preachers on the old gospel radio stations he grew up listening to. This darkness came from somewhere deeper. He told of it in his songs—most famously in “Folsom Prison Blues,” when he sang about shooting a man in Reno, not over a feud over a woman or in a dusty-street duel, but “just to watch him die.” The dark brutality found in “Folsom Prison Blues” doesn’t waste time justifying itself or making sad excuses. It’s not revenge or jealousy—it’s death for death’s sake. It was the Man in Black’s murder ballad side. There’s another ballad in which a woman named Delia is murdered. The killer in that ballad tied Delia to a chair. He shot her once—it didn’t kill her, but “with the second shot she died.”

But there was a catch. There was always this catch in those murder ballads of his. At the end of the songs, Johnny Cash always tells of the guilt the killer later felt. Every time he thinks about that dead man in Reno he hangs his head and cries. When the law finally catches up with Delia’s killer, he’s suffering the jailhouse consequences and pleading for the jailor to come help him, crying that he can’t sleep because all around his jailhouse bed he hears the “patter of Delia’s feet.” The guilt is always there, and that sense of guilt is what made the brutality make sense to all of us.


April 18, 2013

Comments (1)

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Great story

I love these lesser known stories of the history of Chattanooga and the surrounding area.

Annie 364 days ago

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