Johnny Cash: The Poet of Sympathy for Healing America’s Divisions

September 30, 2019 Updated: October 2, 2019


Progressives have done all they can to heighten the tension of political correctness with our established institutions and “cancel culture” in Western society. As comedian Shane Gillis also learned recently, everything is political now, and your present fate must be “canceled” if your past does not conform absolutely to today’s progressive orthodoxy.

The New York Times’s 1619 Project, for example, aspires to “cancel” the American founding for that generation’s sins and redirect all reverence Americans have for 1776 toward 1619, the year the first slave ship arrived in British North America.

In a word, the Times’s politically purposed project communicates antipathy toward the founding of the country it claims to care about so much.

Neither apathy nor antipathy offer any paths to redemption for society and to friendship for citizens whose ancestors were enemies. Redemption and civic friendship require sympathy, the capacity to understand another’s pain, literally a “community of feeling.”

To achieve sympathy, we ought to have our passions educated not by sanctimonious politicians or propagandistic newspapers, but by the poet Johnny Cash. Cash’s ballads are staunchly patriotic, demonstrating a deep love for his particular country. They are also intensely human, revealing a profound understanding of universal human nature.

If you wonder how you should feel about our nation’s past and your place in its present, you could do no better than look to the Man in Black. He offers an education in sympathy that provides a path to healing and friendship that neither sugar-coats the past nor demonizes it.

Johnny Cash’s “Bitter Tears”

Fifty-five years ago, Johnny Cash recorded “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian,” a concept-album that recounts the plight of American Indians. The album is a tour de force, displaying the full power of lyrical storytelling as a means for educating the passions toward a good and useful end.

The album’s cover features Cash in “red-face,” dressed as an American Indian. Of course progressives must denounce Cash for this pose, as they did with Trudeau. In the oppressor-oppressed narrative, as a white man, Cash’s outfit can only be mockery. On the contrary, Cash meant his costume to demonstrate solidarity and sympathy.

As for the songs, a few examples serve to show Cash’s teaching. “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” recounts the treaty George Washington signed with the Seneca tribe. The treaty secured land rights to the Seneca for “as long as the sun will shine, as long as the grass shall grow.” Subsequent generations, however, brazenly broke the treaty.

The song teaches us to feel pride in the father of our country and sadness and anger at those who “corrected George’s vow,” thinking “the father of our country must be wrong,” for “what’s an Indian anyhow?” Just as slaveholders, in their minds, dehumanized slaves in order to hold them in bondage, American politicians–Cash contends–justified breaking the treaty with the Seneca tribe by refusing to recognize their full humanity.

“The Talking Leaves” beautifully tells the story of Sequoyah–a brilliant Cherokee Indian–who marveled at the white man’s use of writing as a boy and later developed an original alphabet for the Cherokee language. Even as Aristotle taught that human speech–logos–is the defining human quality, Cash weaves an argument with anecdote that the humanity of American Indians cannot be denied, for they too hold the capacity for communicating rational thought.

“The Ballad of Ira Hayes” narrates the tragedy of a man whose people were treated unjustly. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, though, “Ira volunteered, and forgot the white man’s greed.” He would be one of the few survivors atop Iwo Jima hill who helped raise the American flag after that bloody battle, and yet ten years later “he died drunk one morning, alone in the land he fought to save.”

It is impossible not to be moved by Cash’s booming baritone belting out Ira’s story. Ira’s name means “wrath,” and yet his tale is one of forgiveness and sacrifice. In Ira is all the humanity, the triumph, the suffering, the hope, and the tragedy of the America we have inherited today.

We cannot afford to ignore the uncomfortable parts of our history, nor, though, ought we to believe those who insist that America should be defined by her worst moments. Even Ira Hayes believed America was good enough to die for.

These songs teach us to sympathize with American Indians by leading us to weep with them over the injustice they have endured at the hands of people no longer living. Further, they invite us to build on that foundation of sympathy a lasting friendship that can redeem those past injustices.

The path to redemption and friendship

Cash’s perspective on American history–seen especially in his albums “Bitter Tears” and “America: A 200-Year Salute in Song and Story”–differs from the apathy of those who cloak indifference with virtue signals and those who sell outrage on social media. Undeniably Cash cared about the victims of injustice, and he believed we should too.

His perspective differs also from the antipathy of those who see nothing redemptive in the American founding, who see only the country’s failure to live up to its articulation of the noblest beliefs humanity has uttered, noble far beyond anyone’s capacity to realize perfectly. Undeniably Cash loved his country and thought it good, and he believed we should too.

Cash beckons us to note justly the successes and failures of our ancestors, and yet humbly, knowing that we too are but men, and–in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address–to rededicate ourselves to the high standard our founders established.

Redemption of American society and civic friendship among all Americans are possible, but not through apathy or antipathy, only through sympathy.

Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Clifford Humphrey
Clifford Humphrey
Clifford Humphrey is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America and the Director of Admissions for Thales College. He holds a PhD in politics from Hillsdale College, and he resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.