June 1, 2008


Johnny Cash's Very American Recordings: Rodney Clapp's ambitious scope occasionally confines the musical icon to the shadows in an otherwise illuminating tour.: a review of Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of the Nation By Rodney Clapp (Randall J. Stephens, 5/29/2008, Christianity Today)

Clapp, who has previously written about Christianity and pop culture, spirituality, and the American religious scene, treats Cash as both an American prophet and the embodiment of so many American contradictions. Among other things, Clapp contends, "He and his music can help us see more keenly into the often baffling murkiness that is the American relation between holiness and hedonism, church and state, faith and culture."

Drawing on the work of another Southerner named Cash—W. J., that is—Clapp explores Johnny Cash as a kind of walking, talking symbol of Southern identity. In the 1940s the journalist W. J. Cash famously described the dualistic character of the South: from its saintliness and savagery to its regional, neo-Confederate pride and deep insecurities about its place in the nation. For Clapp, Johnny Cash bore the racial and caste burdens of Southern history. Yet Cash's sense of tragedy, loss, and hope of salvation also appealed to the nation as a whole. And Clapp is at his best when he looks at how Cash helped unify Americans in a shared sense of religious and social longing.

Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction is a sprawling work. On one page Clapp navigates the intricacies of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, on another he alludes to Bertram Wyatt-Brown's work on Southern honor and violence, and on yet another he points to Reinhold Niebuhr's struggle with life's biggest questions. There is something almost Whitmanesque or Kerouacian about the scope. As the New York Observer said of rock journo and cultural critic Greil Marcus, "everything reminds him of everything." Clapp occasionally is tripped up by his own ambitions. When the narrative meanders onto the crooked roads of late-19th-century capitalism or lingers on the role of the American government under conservative administrations, Cash vanishes from the pages. That's unfortunate, because Clapp does have some very interesting things to say about the country icon. For instance, Clapp's treatment of how Cash was compelled and repulsed by violence, "a hallmark of the American character," is particularly insightful. The Arkansas native sang murder ballads and presented himself as an outlaw while also pointing to the plight of Native Americans and championing the cause of "the least of these."

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 1, 2008 8:00 PM

You surely should have Amazon linked to Johnny's "Love God Murder" CD set. A musical journey proving the validity of Clapp's thesis.

Posted by: Mike at June 1, 2008 9:14 PM

The contradiction can be expressed, I think, as 'the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak'.

Cash's cover of 'Personal Jesus' makes it a much different song.

Posted by: Mikey at June 2, 2008 5:01 PM