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The case for Johnny Cash as a political artist

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The greatest singers are magicians of intimacy, bonding themselves to listeners in ways that make us feel like we’ve been granted visitation into their psyches and souls. Johnny Cash, who died in 2003, was one of those singers, a man whose sumptuous baritone conveyed a singular mixture of warmth, gravitas and grace. That voice is the reason Cash ranks among the most storied and mythologized musical figures in modern American life, the subject of boxed sets, books, movies, and a still-thriving industry of T-shirts and dorm room posters. (Cash also published two memoirs during his lifetime.) This density of lore around the Man in Black can make finding the “real” Cash a daunting proposition.

The latest entry in the literature of Cash is Michael Stewart Foley’s “ Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash ,” which argues for considering Cash as a political artist, a performer deeply engaged with the issues of his time who deployed his magnificent instrument in quietly radical ways. It’s an ambitious attempt at a sort of musical-cum-political characterology, drawn from Cash’s public (and sometimes private) utterances and close readings of songs, recordings and performances, particularly those from the 1969-1971 ABC musical variety […]

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