For my closest friends, it was a complete mystery. They had visited me in my dormitory room at the University of Georgia almost every night and listened to our usual menu of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other rock bands.
But on this particular occasion, they were greeted at the door by a raspy voice singing of a poor, drunken Indian. They couldnt fathom why I was so intent on the song that I wouldnt let them speak until it ended. The University of Georgia this night in 1969 was a seething pit of revolution, change and anger over the war in Vietnam.
Country music was not exactly what these would-be radicals were looking for, and yet they sat dressed in their headbands, peace symbols and bell-bottoms to listen. They also listened as I tried to explain why the country music star should be just as much a part of our musical repertoire as Bob Dylan.
Today, I realize with humility that I was right. Johnny Cash has passed through the portals of death and into the halls of immortality, yet there is no doubt that his influence on modern music will carry on long after his departure. For me, The Man in Black was a giant of inspiration who not only gained stardom, but used that position to speak out for those who could not be heard themselves.
At a time when our country was absorbed in the civil rights issue, he quietly sang of the plight of the American Indian with such tunes as The Ballad of Ira Hayes, Trail of Tears and As Long As the Grass Shall Grow. When the country was facing economic setback, the troubadour of the people stated There goes that bracelet for her arm, there goes that new fence for my farm in another ballad.
Johnny Cash brought to focus the real human issues hidden behind headlines. With his songs, he held a magnifying glass up to those issues and we saw the people really affected. And in that regard, he was as much a protest singer as any other artist of that era. He was a pioneer in making the celebrity a political and socially conscious role.
With Johnny Cashs passing, it strikes me that the year sadly has seen the demise of other such pioneers:
No one can deny that when Gregory Peck, as Atticus Finch, stood in that small courtroom and defended a black man accused of rape, he struck a note in the hearts of both black and white Americans everywhere, and carried the cruelty of racial injustice into our souls.
Katherine Hepburn, in a career that spanned decades, portrayed the feisty, confident businesswoman who depended upon her intellect more than her charm to make headway in the corporate world. And by doing so, Hepburn influenced the thinking of generations of young women long before the feminist movement became household words.
Bob Hope, in a career that spanned over half a century, made it his duty and responsibility to carry his love of country to the corners of the world and let American servicemen everywhere know that they were not forgotten. In his film roles, Hope often commented about the economic and political environment of his country in a manner that brought laughter while it caused us to think.
The common element among these celebrities is that they made statement without openly criticizing their government; they simply and effectively used their talent to move the societal spirit and make us all realize what our ethically correct course of action should be.
By comparison, Natalie Maines, the lead singer of The Dixie Chicks, chose to make a detrimental remark about her president in front of an audience in London. By doing so, she utilized her celebrity status to throw water in the face of her countrys leader in front of the entire world.
As Cash himself once stated in an interview, a person in a celebrity position carries the responsibility of making sure words and actions reflect productive attitudes because such actions and words can influence society so much. Perhaps for this reason, actor Johnny Depp was very quick recently to correct anti-American statements he was accredited with. By doing so, Depp has demonstrated that he continues Johnny Cashs legacy, and that he must Walk the Line.
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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