johnnny cash nickajack
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.
Johnny Cash had lived on the road for years, traveling and singing his songs about killers and floods, jailhouses and whores. He ate pills to keep running and became “leather and bones,” he said, and there was nothing left of him. He was strung out, wasted and had no idea who he was anymore. He thought that in the black depths of Nickajack Cave he could put an end to his life and nobody would ever find his wasted body. Only God would know where he was and he was ready to let God put him “wherever He puts people like me,” as he said later in his autobiography. That heavy guilt had wholly overcome him and he felt there was no redemption for him anymore. He had no control—death was the only way to make the guilt of what he had become stop. He wanted to be swallowed in the blackness of the Nickajack Cave and of the peaceful blackness of death. He had laid himself down to die.
Then something happened. He later said: I didn’t believe it at first. I felt something very powerful, a sensation of utter peace, clarity and sobriety. I couldn’t understand it. How, after being awake for so long and driving my body so hard and taking so many pills—dozens of them, scores, even hundreds—could I possibly feel all right? The feeling persisted though, and then my mind started focusing on God. There in Nickajack Cave I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny. I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God’s time, not mine.
The Man in Black then raised his head. He started to move. He had no idea how to get back out of the cave but he crawled in whatever direction he could find, feeling before himself with his hands. He soon felt a breath of wind on his back—he turned around and followed that wind until he saw a light.
When he came out of the blackness he found June Carter standing at the mouth of Nickajack Cave. She had a basket of food and gave him something to drink. She held his arm and Johnny told her that God had saved him in that cave. She drove him back home and Johnny told her that he wasn’t going back to what he was before. He had been unable to forgive himself for what he’d become but there in the blackness of Nickajack Cave he realized that God would forgive him.
The traditional symbolism of the cave tells that those dark spaces beneath the earth are where spiritual death takes place prior to rebirth. Passing through a cave represents a change of state, or a re-entry into the womb, and re-emergence represents that rebirth or spiritual enlightenment. The story of Johnny Cash at Nickajack Cave fits this mythic symbolism perfectly. He entered Nickajack Cave as the Man in Black—strung-out, road-worn and with a deep darkness consuming his soul. He entered that cave as a guilty man but the Man in Black re-emerged forgiven and a Man of God.
But he still had songs to sing. In his last years, Johnny Cash recorded some old gospel songs. One of those songs seems to tell the tale of what happened to him in the dark depths of Nickajack Cave. As he sang this song there was a new truth in his old voice. It was not the shaky guilt that was there when he sang about tying Delia down or watching that man in Reno die. It was a religious conviction. Johnny didn’t write the song. It’s an old spiritual that tells of the righteous brutality of God rather than of the brutality and guilt that Johnny often sang about—that age old evil guilt that is born into all men:
Well my Goodness Gracious! Let me tell you the news!
My head’s been wet with the midnight dew!
I been down on bended knee
TALK-in’ to the Man from GAL-i-lee
He spoke to me with a voice so sweet
I thought I heard the shuffle of angel’s feet
He called my name and my heart stood still
When he said, “John, go do my will!
Go and tell that long-tongued liar, go and tell that midnight rider,
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the night fighter,
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut ‘em down.
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna
The Man in Black is gone now. Johnny Cash doesn’t play the flat-top box anymore and we can only presume that the guilt that came through all his old murder ballads has been washed away. A dam was built in 1967 and Nickajack Cave was flooded—no one is allowed to go inside. Johnny Cash was one of the last men in there. There’s a fence around the cave’s mouth now. The place is now home to a colony of grey bats that fly out when the sun goes down. When darkness falls and the grey bats fly out the moon rises over the river and moonlight floats on the water. It’s quiet outside the cave at night. There are only the shadows of the mountains, the moonlit river and a soft wind.
Nothing else is there.
Cody Maxwell is a Chattanooga writer. This story is adapted from his new book, “Chattanooga Chronicles,” which will be published in August by History Press.