Well, we're doing mighty fine, I do suppose / In our streak-of-lighting cars and fancy clothes / But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back / Up front there ought to be a Man in Black.
I was hoping after I finished watching the 2-DVD release of an anthology of Johnny Cash's TV show from 1969-1971 last week that I would have a better handle on what it was about the man that made him the icon he was.
Aside from the fact that he had the most incandescent smile I've ever seen on any man, which in itself would draw people to him, his love of all forms of music and musicians - and seemingly, of humanity in general - was returned in spades by everyone who encountered him.
Guests on his show ranged from a very young Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Roy Orbison, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Ray Charles to Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Jr. and Chet Atkins. It was clear he was tickled to the bone to host every one of these artists, and the feeling was mutual. There's one segment with Derek and the Dominos where Eric Clapton looks sidelong at Cash as though he can barely believe he's actually in the man's presence. It's quite something to watch when you consider that many people since have looked at Clapton the same way.
For baby boomers, Johnny Cash was the first recording artist who made it cool to examine country music. Because he gave voice to social justice concerns at a time when that mattered profoundly to young people, he crossed over in ways that other country singers did not. A prime example of this was Man in Black, a simple yet powerful song that he performed for the first time before a rapt college audience.
Cash used his prodigious talents as a singer, songwriter and guitar player to engage on the highest possible level with the full spectrum of society, whether it was with hardened inmates at Folsom Prison or students only just starting to become aware of the world around them. It was as though he alchemicalized his own considerable personal pain into an art form anyone could tap into and that connected us all to each other. He was our generation's Everyman.