Sunday, January 21, 2018

Johnny Cash - from the 19th Century to Nine Inch Nails.

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Johnny Cash was a regular in our house when I was growing up. Not in person of course, but his voice was a frequent soundtrack. I remember being a bit shocked when I first paid attention to the words of Delia’s Gone. Burl Ives or Jim Reeves this was not. I don’t think Johnny Cash ever ‘shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’, but it was easy to believe that he might have done.

As Cash’s long career rose and fell, and rose again and fell away again, it was towards the end that he soared and some of his best work was recorded.

One of his famous American Recordings albums contained the multi-award-winning version of industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails’ track Hurt (released 2002). After he died, a box set called Unearthed was released, including a set of 15 hymns recorded during 2003.

The track listing is below, along with the year the hymns had either been first published or first recorded

1  Where We'll Never Grow Old (1914, James Moore)
2  I Shall Not Be Moved (traditional, first recorded 1929)
3  I Am A Pilgrim (first recorded 1917, Imperial Quartet)
4  Do Lord (c. 1950, V.O. Fossett)
5  When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder (1893, James M. Black)
6  If We Never Meet Again This Side Of Heaven (1945, Albert E Brumley)
7  I'll Fly Away (1931, Albert E Brumley)
8  Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies (first recorded 1928, written by William M Golden)
9  Let The Lower Lights Be Burning (1871, Philip P Bliss)
10  When He Reached Down (1947, JFB Wright)
11  In The Sweet By And By (1868, Sanford F Bennett)
12  I'm Bound For The Promised Land (1787, Stennett)
13  In The Garden (1913, C. Austin Miles)
14  Softly And Tenderly (1880, William L Thompson)
15  Just As I Am (1835, Charlotte Elliott)

For an artist to encompass nearly 200 years of song, from 21st century alternative rock to early 19th century hymns, is utterly remarkable. It is hard to imagine any other performer being able to carry that off, and to in fact make these songs his own.

Perhaps, as track 6 above begins, ‘when we come to the end of life’s journey’, it will be songs which will come to mind, bringing reminiscence, joy, and comfort. Because by that stage, as the emotional sledgehammer line from Hurt says, ‘You can have it all, my empire of dirt’.

Today, in a world where the line between sacred and secular seems to be getting more sharply defined, it is hard to imagine a time when there were crossovers. Yet when you really delve into the history of the music, crossovers were the fertile ground that brought freshness. Many of the writers of popular hymns in the 1800s were also secular songwriters, skilled practitioners, commercially successful, bringing their gifts and talents to a range of genres.

How many of today's songs will still be sung in 200 years' time?