tv Michael Stewart Foley Citizen Cash CSPAN April 21, 2022 9:52am-10:57am EDT
serve as vice chair and lisa cook, if confirmed, would be the first black woman to serve on the fed board. when congress returns, live coverage of the house on c-spab. watch the senate on c-span.org or c-span now. >> i'm tony clark from the presidential library and glad you could join us tonight. i think it's really good, i happy to be a johnny cash fan so i'm really interested in this, but it's appropriate for the carter library because president carter used to joke that he was a cousin of june carter cash, though that probably may not be true. but it's going to be a really interesting evening to get the political side of johnny cash, as you'll probably hear tonight, president carter was one of, i think, a couple of
presidential candidates that johnny cash said that he supported. michael stewart foley is our author tonight. michael grew up in new england, typical irish american family. family moved around a lot when he was a kid. six times before he was seven years old. but there were a couple of things that were really consistent in his family. they were really political from the standpoint, they loved politics, national and local politics, they were democrats, pro union, loved fdr and jfk. his father stressed the ability to write. as he put it, you need a command of the english language in order to succeed and michael combined those things. it's a great background for
"citizen cash", the political life and times of johnny cash. in addition to this book, michael has written or edited seven other books, including confronting the war machine or front forward politics, he's a historical culture and tv shows like madman and a professor of civilization in his home of france. and also joining us tonight georgian state university professor john mcmillan, john is the author of a number of books, including american epidemics, reporting from the front lines of the opioid crisis, "smoking typewriters", the rise of the media. and the co-founder or co-founder editor, rather of the 60's, the journal of history, politics and culture,
we are going to have a conversation between the two of them, but all of us in the audience will get a chance to ask questions. at the bottom of the screen there's a little place where you can type in your question and i'll be monitoring though and we'll get to those in just a little bit. now, it's time to sit back and learn about johnny cash. and so, gentlemen, michael, and john, i'll turn it over to you. >> thank you, thanks for the great introduction. >> yeah, absolutely. and i think i've done a couple of events at the carter center and a cappella books, thanks for hosting, and i wish we could be together in person, but this will have to do. >> mike and i are really good friends, i'll say that from the outset. we've known each other about 20 years, it's been a rewarding and wonderful friendship during that period. and it occurred to me just
recently, over that 20-year period there have been many times i've heard you talk about this book that's coming out now, so there's a long gestation period as tony just mentioned you've done a lot of things in the interim. i like in the introduction, you told a story about the first and only time that you went to a high end auction and it was an auction that was selling johnny cash memorabilia which you acknowledge you could not have awarded. you had an interesting and edifying experience there. i wonder if you would just start by sharing that. >> sure. thanks. i mean, this speaks exactly to the point just made you've heard me talking about johnny cash for 20 years. this was in 2004, right after cash and june carter had both passed away and the estate was auctioning off all of their affairs at sotheby's.
and i had been working on this other book that tony mentioned about the vietnam war and in 2002, somebody sony or columbia had come out with a concert recording that had never been released before from december of 1969. it was recorded at madison square garden at which johnny cash starts speaking quite a lot, in fact, about the vietnam war. that piqued my interest because i was a cash fan and i didn't know that he had said anything about the vietnam war until i heard that recording. when the auction was taking place decided to check it out. not knowing what i would learn. and i was about to give up, in fact, because i thought this is kind of pointless, it's just one person after another bidding on, you know, a pair of his cowboy boots or something, and this couple came in and sat down next to me, kind of excited. they had just arrived and the bidding had already started and
the woman at some point asked me what i thought i was going to bid for, like you said, a poor assistant professor at the time, pretty much nothing i could afford. so i sheepishly said, well, i'm just here as a historicalion and that piqued her interest and she asked me why would a historian be interested? and i said about the vietnam war. >> and she cut me off, anyone who knew johnny cash knew he was republican. and i said his background, the man in black, for the poor and beaten down, well, yeah, sure, because he was a christian, he cared about people obviously. so we had that kind of like friendly debate and it only kind of affirmed this idea in my head that i should investigate this further because i had read other cash
biographies, i read his own autobiography and nobody had really grapple with the politics of johnny cash which i thought was pretty satisfying. and it was interesting because there is this thing where people who describe themselves as either republicans, democrats, liberals or conservatives, all kind of claim him so i was interested in why that was, too. >> you describe in the book some fascinating early experiences that johnny cash had that casual fans might not be aware of. he grew up in tremendous deprivation during the great depression. his brother died in an accident. and he was a breaker in the military. and what do you think might have played the biggest role in
shaping his politics and his artistry? >> i mean, it's hard to say which one of all of those was the most important. i would probably lean towards saying that it was growing up in poverty and witness to real poverty and deprivation around him. you know, his family was much more fortunate than a lot of other improverished in northeast arkansas at the time. he was surrounded by a population of landless farmers and sharecroppers who were destitute. ... where they were loaned, you know, the resources to get themselves back on their feet. so a kind of combination of those things is really important, but part of that too is the wartime experience that you describe where he part of that isot the wartime experience that you describe where his brother died not at
war but during the war making extra money for the family, still because of their enduring poverty during the war. and then he serves in the military like you say in the early cold war, and has a working man's kind of veterans experience because he was basically joined the air force as soon as w the korean war bres out because had he not he s would've been drafted for sure. i think he has a real empathy and sympathy for people who find themselves in these kinds of circumstances which are not really of their own choosing, and which are controlled, forces which are controlled, by other. >> my mother and my grandmother were johnny cash fans to some degree. i think i very early childhood memories of watching the johnny
cash specials, and at one time those of johnny cash autograph in her house which is strange if you know my family because we don't collect memorabilia and neither of my parents are deeply -- they love johnny cash and they watched that show and at the same time they were not political in any conventional sense picks sometimes my mother or my grandmother would vote for that would be about it. but to suggest that show sometimes would carry subversive messages that might have -- maybe they didn't even understand. what are some of the ways the show had been subversively political? >> i mean, subversive, i'm not sure i would use the term subversive. i got the impression from talking to a lot of people who watched that show, including some of my older siblings, that they felt like the subversive thing was that he brought on
these young radical artists to perform, alongside kind of mainstream country music stars. i think in a way that cash engaged with the public and what made them popular probably with your grandmother and mother who didn't think of themselves as particularly political, was that he was, he had this television show that appeared every single week, and practically every week he weighed in in one way or another on some of a the most pressing issues that were facing the country. and he did in a way that was kind of very open and not heavy-handed, not like this is what i believe and this is what you should thank. he wasn't trying for some ideological line on you, andy came across as a guy who was trying to make sense of reallyt complicated political circumstances in a way that a lot of his viewers were, right? and i think that really
resonated. and so it doesn't come off on first glance you can watch some of these episodes and think well, you know, isn't that nice he's talking about young people, you know, who are questioning the wisdom of their elders, or maybe not. maybe it's nicely saying something positive about servicemen or about prisoners or something. he had these various ways on the television show of introducing discussion about these issues that were important to him. but like i say not in a way where he was trying to force it down anybody's throat. so it didn't feel like he was out waving a political banner or marching up front of the march. it was like he w was a citizen d he was doing what he thought citizen should do, which is that they should consider theses issues thoughtfully and weigh them for themselves.
so that i think that's really, that platform and the television show are enormously important to understanding him as a public citizen. without that platform there's other ways thatho he engages political issues but the tv show, for those from 1969-1971 is the primary platform. >> the topic of johnny cash and race relations is a complicated one. i appreciated the sensitivity with which you addressed it. you obviously did not cost johnny cash for civil rights hero. you discover an episode in the book i was not aware of, i don't know if -- you also described him as someone who is able to develop a capacity for transcending or overcoming some of the racism. what can you say about that topic? a lot he's uh because it is a complicated
story, right he grows up in northeastern arkansas in the community. that's entirely white. that's deliberately segregated. i mean established by a government agency that expressly said we're not going to go against local norms right much as we might like to so we're not going to try to establish like an integrated farm community here, right and it's clear that he grows up among racists. there are people in his family tree who are racists. maybe an uncle who may have been a member of the clan. he certainly has confederate ancestry, right? and that's an important part of his identity and then we know because of is that were published by his first wife in her memoir that he had these particularly ugly episodes that you referred to when he'd get drunk in germany when he was in the air force and got into
these. altercations it doesn't seem like they ever got physical but altercations with black servicemen, and then he recounts these back to her in particularly grotesque language, you know the language of racists, so it's safe to say that by the time you know as a young man. he's he's a racist he hasn't shaken himself loose with these racist attitudes, right but then a few things happen. in the years after he gets out of the air force one is that he moves to memphis right this town that's majority black population and he can spend you know whole days in a way that he never had in his life before encountering no one but black people including poor black people who he is a salesman was meant to be selling things to and who he starts to relate to and starts to see a kind of shared experience in their poverty and deprivation that he relates to his own upbringing. but the other thing is really
important is that he becomes kind of obsessed with these field recordings that you know, alan lomax and others did and particularly this one record that came out in 1959 called blues and the mississippi night, which is one of the most explosive i think most explosive recordings ever to come out on a on vinyl in the united states describing segregation from the perspective of these the blues artists who are so scared of this record coming out and their families facing retaliation that they insist that pseudonyms be used. right and it's at that point. you can see that cash in his own work. he starts to record some of the same songs, right and he starts to develop this sense of kind of a low maxine sense himself a commitment to social realism and to documenting reality. so what i described in the book
is not really him in say 1962 running to the front of a civil rights march but instead putting out a record called blood sweat and tears which we usually think of as like a kind of folk record with a bunch of work songs on it. but in fact most of the work songs are about exploited black men being terrorized right subjects to horrific violence lynchings, right and some of these songs. he first heard on blues and the mississippi night. and so i think it's that kind of meant to documenting the social reality which he had seen around him. he'd seen this in various ways. he'd seen chain gangs. it seemed sharecroppers abused, right? that you know, he undergoes a really important kind of transformation across that period of the 50s and 60s. so by the time he has the television show he's you know, pretty much an obvious advocate for racial equality in a way
that he presents race on the television show. so never was he ever called to account for those letters. when did they come out and he ever have to answer for him. he never did because they they came out after he died that that book that vivian. um cash's first wife put out came out. in fact after she had passed just after she passed away in 2008. so they you know, i think cash fans you read, you know everything that's ever come out about cash would be aware of those letters, but they haven't i don't think anybody's really dealt with them and the question of race in particular detail until now. it's interesting to think about because sometimes when people are drunk they say things that they they reveal something that maybe they've repressed that's not socially acceptable but people say, you know things that there's speak out nonsense and you give them a pass if you look at the balance of his life, i think you do a good job of treating that issue with with
sensitivity. yeah. thank you. it's best known albums were as prison albums. those are the ones that i like the most and he clearly had a special empathy or or bond with prisoners, but i don't know if people are aware of how that develops. i wonder if you could you could discuss that. sure. i mean he you know. he had spent some time in jail himself, right? he died a few run-ins with the law never spent more than a night or two in jail, and he never went to prison. although there was this was a widely held belief even after the folsom prison record came out people assumed that you he was performing as a prisoner in the prison, you know, what send letters to the prison, you know address to johnny cash. but he had never done prison time, but he had started performing at prisons as early as 1957 and he did this kind of quietly just relating again. to men who i think you know, he
understood it as being impoverished most of the time a lot of them from the south like he was and you know, getting the short end of the stick sometimes in terms of their run-ins with the law. so he gave many concerts, you know without much fanfare at prisons over the years. he enjoyed playing them but as he talked about in interviews later, you know it bothered him. to see the looks in their eyes like to see the soul, you know kind of drained out of these human beings who are in these places these horrible places doing hard time, and so part of what he wanted to do, especially with that first at folsom prison record was almost like alan lomax, you know was to document the sounds of the institution itself and the sounds of the prisoners themselves and you can you can get cash fans arguing pretty easily about which of the two prison albums is the best one.
and there's actually a third one that you didn't sweden, but the san quentin and folsom ones are the famous ones and to me the interesting thing about the folsom record is that he doesn't it doesn't really play any of his hits like he he tailors the setlist entirely to the experience of the prisoners. there's lots of songs about prisons. and of course, he's not the first country artist to write these kinds of songs or play these kinds of songs, but he's the first one to play these songs to the prisoners and capture their reaction on tape. and so it's a little bit hard for us to go back now because we're cash fans know these records so well, and they've been released a million different ways and we have both complete sets, you know in the box set that you can listen to but to go back and listen to the original vinyl, you know from 1968 listen to that record fresh is really fascinating to think about the of the time when you know you have a president richard nixon who's run for
office on a law and order campaign the governor of california where the prison was located in the concert was performed as ronald reagan also very much law and order and then here's cash kind of know taking the side of you know hard into criminals, you know. so i think that's a really interesting example of his empathy, you know the way that he relates to people even people who were clearly guilty of horrible crimes, you know. well part of what makes those records so extraordinary to me is it's the interaction with the audience. the songs are great. but there's also the sort of ambient noise and the responses that he gets to his songs. and would you be willing to talk about some of that some of those dynamics on the records? yeah. sure. i mean, he's you know, there's a there's a few songs on the records that i think are. you know part of this is a product of the way that the the producer and the label managed it like we know on the on side
too of the folsom record that they edited in some songs from the second set. most of the record is made up from the first set and they kind of cleverly edit them in so there's a there's a kind of rise fall rise thing going on where you have like a really exciting song followed by a soft reflective song you know followed by another exciting song. but yeah, you're right that he you know the way that he speaks to the prisoners in between the songs is as important as the things that he's singing, you know, so he clearly aligns himself with them when you know, he's talking about the guards or he's asked for a drink of water, you know, and they're slow to bring it to him and the crowd starts jearing at the prison personnel for not like treating their guests better and the sense that you have that they are, you know, almost brothers
behind bars is very clear, you know people wrote about this time, you know in i think cream magazine or circus magazines, you know a kind of rock and roll magazine the writer is like, you know, where where must this guy be at or maybe those rolling stone where must this guy be at to be able to relate to these prisoners in the way that he does and people people had you know, somebody like porter wagoner had put out a prison themed record the year before but it was all recorded in the studio it was all you know songs. out prison and he's dressed in you know, a striped jumpsuit on the cover of the album porter wagner is but you don't get a sense like you do with cash that you know, he could be one of them, you know and that he relates to them like brothers video recording of one of those shows where he's giving what i see what i take as a dirty or exasperated. look towards a prison warden or a guard, you know, yeah. yeah, there's other funny moments. there's a tiny detail in your book that probably no one else besides me will ask about you
said played with sometimes i'm variety bill, so he wasn't the only performer. and is it part and he said that some of the performers were strippers at the prison not possibly you must be true because you wrote it. well, it's the story that merle him merle haggard recounted to story many times that new year's eve one year that the the warden at san quentin, right merle haggard was convicted of armed robbery, you know and was serving time at san quentin and cash came in as the headliner on a bill that included other country artists the collins kids, for example, which also seems like kind of weird thing to have these like teenagers basically in this prison and then yeah, i mean like you can find merle haggard recant that story in multiple places. he said there were strippers in from san francisco. and yeah it seems i was just unlikely and unwise, but yeah, i said i suppose that prison concerts are fallen by the wayside. i don't think there's something
people do to often anymore or am i wrong? well, i don't know. good question. i don't know how i'm i feel like i heard of someone doing one recently, but i can't think of who that is in cash himself, you know continue to do them into the 80s, but started to lose his enthusiasm because he as he said to the press many times. he felt like his work on behalf of prison reform. wasn't really working. you know that he didn't he didn't see any positive effect coming from it. there's a there's a pretty great. you can find it in a university or no the state of california archives as a full concert of him playing it soledad and about 1981 that's online and that would have been one of the later ones. i have some more substance of questions, but there's one little amusing tidbit. i want to address right ash once wrote in his liner notes in your book that you quote. he says that he could kill a
jackrabbit with a bowie knife from a distance of 40 yards. yeah, and so clearly this story is not true and there are other instances when he was not the world's most reliable narrator in my own when i was researching my book on the beatles and the rolling stones. i would sometimes encounter things like this. there are stories that i wish were true as they sound great. correct as a historian way to be very scrupulous about not, you know passing along things that just strain credulity. and so i wonder how you dealt with this is a scholar separating some of the lore and the myth around around johnny cash from from the historical facts. yeah. well, you know, it's difficult as as you know from working on the beatles and stones there's an enormous amount of mythology that surrounds any of these super popular artists and and a lot of it is self-created or it's manufactured by the label or by both, you know, and that
episode you know that line that you mentioned where he says that he he could kill a jackrabbit from 40 yards away with a knife, right is in the it's a it's in the liner notes of the ballads of the true west album, right which is one of a series of concept albums that he did. all right, during the early and mid-60s where he was, you know, increasingly plunging into deeper and deeper drug addiction. and the thing is that in some of those albums. it's clear and his manager even attested to this that the you know, he didn't say so much as the drug addiction helped him, but it's clear that he became kind of obsessed with certain themes right in his drug adult state and interrupt this real quick. sure. he said it would be a very unlucky jackrabbit that would perish from a drug addicts toss of a bowie knife. i'm not just right right, which i you know, i think everything about to me that i know that's a
very popular album with some cash fans, but to me, it's one of the weakest of the concept albums like it has it's called ballads of the true west it has songs on it that are not even set in the west. they're set like in new jersey and there's you know, there's this kind of self mythology taking place in the liner notes, and that's you know, i just thought when i read it. i think you'd have to be really good at throwing a bowie knife really practiced to hit a jackrabbit an enormously quick and instinctive animal and knowing that he was in such a terrible way in terms of his drug addiction. it just seems completely ridiculous. right? so you have to be as historian. you have to kind of be honest about that kind of thing much as i i wish it was true, you know. um in 1970 richard nixon invited johnny cash to the white house
and they met and johnny cash performed and i can see why i personally want to accept a white house invitation, but i can also see why someone like johnny cash might want to decline that particular one goes to attend and but it was an interesting story. so i wondered if you would explain the story of what happened. sure, i mean it started because cash went on television at the beginning of the second season or the first regular season because the first season of television show had been a summer replacement season, you know. and in january of 1970 he at the beginning of the season he said at one of these monologues that he often gave at the end of the show that you know, we're thinking about peace in the season and i and my family stand behind president nixon and his quest for peace. now this is really interesting for a lot of reasons not least of which is that there had been
massive protests in the couple of months before that episode aired the big morris orion protests that took place in washington in between which president nixon had gone on national television and given the famous silent majority speech in which he kind of derided protesters right for being a silent but vocal majority who were humiliating the united states. so you could read cash coming out, you know in an episode that was surely taped before january and sort of deciding that he's you know on the side of nixon and where where this national debate is taking place and he had previously gone to vietnam and performed for servicemen about a year earlier and even at that time, you know, he had he had told the servicemen in attendance that he wasn't supportive of the anti-war movement right calling them also. swear word so nixon of course
wasn't a natural johnny cash fan nixon kind of liked broadway show tunes, but somebody in his white house staff informed him to this and invited him to the white house to perform in april 1970. and cash took the invitation, you know, it's the kind of famous episode in the history of johnny cash's career and in his political engagement because there was this whole dust up where someone in the nixon white house staff asked him to play a couple of songs like merle haggard's okie from muskogee and this really awful kind of racist song by guy drake called welfare cadillac that really, you know, marks people on welfare a couple pretty mean songs as far as johnny cash was concerned in and he wouldn't play him and he kind of he did it gently. you know, he refused to play them by sir saying these aren't my songs. i'm gonna play set you know, but then he goes and he plays his
set and at this it's really interesting because if you listen to the whole concert, he starts off saying to this audience of about 300 people of guests who you know, really fought tooth and nail to get tickets to this performance in the white house that they just want to bring a little bit of the soul of the south to the white house that evening but about 20 minutes into the show. he kind of goes off script and starts talking about you know, young people and questioning the wisdom of their elders and he introduces this new song called what is truth which is all about protesters and it's all about the vietnam war. it's very clear from the lyrics where he talks about, you know kids in sunday teaching sunday school and next year might be his turn delay his life down and we know from dan rather who was there as a cbs news reporter that the president seemed a little surprised that here's this guy who just said said on his television show that he support you know my plans for peace and now he's here saying
10 feet away from me singing this new song about young people questioning their elders and then cash says to him mr. president. we hope you know that you can bring the boys home faster or even sooner than you think you can right that wasn't part of the script clearly. so it makes for an interesting episode in cash is engagement with the vietnam war certainly. well, you know through a lot of the book you described this dynamic you describe him, you know making statements or holding viewpoints in the 60s or 70s that could be described as liberal or even leftist, but he also had this, you know, really strong appeal to conservative listeners and there are a lot of those as well and don't take the question the wrong way. i think i agree with you analysis, but you know someone might say that like every recording artist johnny cash cared about his popular success, and we know that because early in his career. he allowed his record label to
guide some some decisions and he appeared looking ridiculous and some photographs for commercial purposes. i found it amusing that you mentioned it in the johnny cash show. he producers had decided that part of their formula would be to have an attractive woman on the show every night so that more people would attend. a view rather. so how do you know that when johnny cash, you know would you know back and forth between views that should be considered conservative or liberal that he wasn't prevaricating and just simply trying to find ways to appeal to as many people as you could because he wanted them to buy his records, right? it's a fair question because as you say, you know you you might think that about any artist right wants to keep wants to maintain the largest audience possible and wants to you know is willing to maybe speak out of both sides of their mouth. so as not to either offend anybody or you know.
maybe less cynically just wants to bring everybody together. you could make that case, you know. but i really looked for that. you know, i really looked to find some evidence that somewhere either he or his manager were you know? worried about alienating some part of their audience by him talking about or speaking up on one issue or another. and as far as i can tell the evidence doesn't exist. you know, i think certainly by the time he had the television show he was in a position to be much more fearless about that anyway, because he already had this enormous audience, you know, he was fantastically successful and you know if you was if he did think that maybe he was going to alienate some part of it and lose it. you know, it wasn't gonna cost him, you know financially necessarily or in any way that
would affect his own sense of you know himself his self-esteem his standing as an artist, but the thing is he was doing these things. you know that one might regard as unpopular even before that. you know, he he covers that song custer. by peter lafarge on the on the bitter tears album, which is basically about the massacre of custer's 7th cavalry, right? at a time when you know the we're at the height of the cold war at the start of the vietnam war the escalation of the vietnam war. it could easily be misread. as a kind of anti-militarism kind of song and he didn't think anything of it. he performs it on the television show with buffy saint marie, you know as a sort of laughing through the story about you know, what happens to george armstrong custer which is pretty ugly. so i just don't i think other people have kind of assumed other scholars in biographers
have kind of assumed that that was part of what he was doing by by dabbling in folk music. he was trying to expand his audience into vote, but johnny cash didn't need to expand his audience into folk, you know, he already had an enormous following even without very many hit songs in the 1960s. he was a columbia records star and he was in a he had. you had a certain amount of freedom because of that to do what he wanted. you know, the television shows a little bit different because he didn't have complete creative control over the television show. it was clear that he had guests on who he would have rather not had on, you know a lot of hollywood types that the that the producers insisted on but we know that most of the musical guests, you know were his idea and a lot of me had to push for over the objections of some of the producers so bruce springsteen whom i'm a very big fan of managed have a very long career where it was quite obvious where his sympathies
were politically in the way that he would relate to people who were down trout and or oppressed, but he managed to go a very long time without i don't think i've ever criticizing a republican person by name until i think the bush era and all the trump and i think right i think he finally had enough. yeah, but johnny cash never went quite that far. no, i don't i mean, but it's possible that you know, there's a famous. story has been recounted in multiple places of springsteen's, you know release of 41 shots right the song about being shot down by police and that you know reporters reporting on going to see him at play at giant stadium, you know, not long after that in certain springsteen fans, you know when he started to play that song turning their back on him and then as soon as he broke into some hit song they turned around and were cheering again and i think fans have the capacity. to do that sometimes, you know, even if you know, they may be in love with an artist for years
and then write a song. that they don't particularly care for they might be willing to look the other way because on balance they love everything else, you know, and i think that's possibly true with cash too. you know, i probably show with our mutual friend jeremy veran and madison square garden where he debut that song. all right? okay. yeah. um, i would i will finish up in a minute and then let some other people ask questions my last one has to do with i was i was struck by a blurb on the book by historian beth bailey and she says that history has written for an era as much as about and you know johnny cash of course lives through. a really difficult and tumultuous time during the vietnam era, but now i think by many measures i think we may be even more polarized and divided than people were then and i wonder how this affected your approach to the writing. i assume that i don't even think about this book for a long time, but you must have done most of the writing during the trump
era. and so i wonder how that might have a shaped your approach and then you can comment into that. what are the lessons that maybe you think we could or should draw from johnny cash a person who did try to transcend political labels in some pretty fundamental ways. well, you're right that i did i did think about it. obviously it was impossible not to and it didn't have so much to do with you know, particular political figures so much as it did with the way that we talk about politics in the united states and the terms of debate and discussion that we use right, you know, one thing that drives me crazy is always speaking in these kind of binary terms of some, you know, like on election night. everything's red and blue and that's it. and you know, someone's either a liberal or conservative or they're a democrat or republican and we know that you know, lots
of people don't fit squarely into any of those categories, even if they might self-label themselves that way it's all depends on kind of the issues. it's up for discussion and part of that discourse is that you know in recent years, it's not uncommon to hear comic public, you know political commentators say that we're living in kind of unprecedented polarized times to historian that just drives you nuts when people say unprecedented because almost always you can find a precedent regardless of what we're talking about and we can set upside we can say nearly unprecedented and scary. i mean, i don't think so. we had a civil war, you know, and we refer we refer to the 60s as a as also, you know, michael kazen and morris isserman's book is, you know, america divided the civil war years right talking about the 60s as the civil war. i think people who lived in these periods that were polarized. of thought of themselves living
in unprecedentedly polarized times. so it's it was impossible to write the book without also thinking about that right the thinking that in this in this period of the vietnam war which had clearly divided the nation of urban uprisings of campus uprisings right of division over, you know, the generation gap right over a crises of faith. for example, right that this is the way that this is the way that public figures talked about the united states in 1969 and 771. so i think you know. cash by inhabiting this politics of empathy that existed outside or within, you know these categories that kind of straddled these categories that we usually use to talk about politics. is useful for our times right?
it's useful to remind us that we can talk about politics and political culture outside of those terms of debate and that we can demand better, you know of our public commentators to be more nuanced and more subtle in the way that they discuss american politics and that it's okay, you know for all of us for our children if they don't feel like they fit a particular label or fit into a particular political box, you know, and in that way, i think that's what beth bailey. spotted you know is that this is this is a guy who has you know died 18 years ago, but in the way that he thought about his citizenship he he acted in a way that is a model for our own times. terrific, i think that's really well put and that's i think that's the thing that i like most about johnny cash and the thing that i i learned the most
while reading the book, so i appreciate that. i see tony does i mean are you are you gonna moderate the questions? right? well, i want to remind folks that they can put questions in the q&a box. but before we get to that michael, i was just gonna ask if johnny cash wanted to use his television program to to speak out. why why not do it more. blatantly, like perhaps the smothers brothers yeah. well, i think one reason is this mother's brothers, you know, they they kind of paid for it by facing the cbs sensors all the time and i think that's that's perhaps one reason is that you know that that preceded the cash show and he was aware of it. but i also think it wasn't really it wasn't in his temperament. to be so blatant, you know and in the way that i was mentioning
earlier where he is kind of thinking out loud about some of these issues, you know in the way that he would present it for example. a political question on his ride this train segment where he would take viewers on this trip to some place in america's past or some other place in american life and he would get try to get viewers to kind of put themselves in the shoes of other people that he seemed much more comfortable with now at times he could be pretty direct about it in the case of native americans for example, and in the case of prisoners he did over time by the by the time we get to the end of his last season, he's much more direct about the way that he talks to his viewers about those issues, but he was never you know, he never comes across as as towing an ideological line or a partisan
line. it's always like i'm just a citizen thinking about these things like you are and this is what i think, you know one of our viewers who is asking referred to the cash's cover of the cowboy jack clements novelty song one on the right is on the on the left in 65 and says, you know a song that parodies the travails of musicians waiting into politics. what do you feel are some of the main milestones that later radicalized him even to the point of making his earlier recording of that song seemed more like a parody. well the interesting thing about that song is he performs that song on the television show a couple of times at least twice that i can think of and one time he does it with the the tennessee three his backing band and carl perkins dressed up in these kind of exaggerated hippie costumes, you know, and he kind
of laughs after they perform the song they perform right at the opening of one of one of those episodes and he goes, oh, you know, tennessee children or something like that, you know, so he's still i mean, it's very interesting because that song as you say that jack clement wrote is effectively, you know takes a shot at all the political folk singers the kind of phil oaks of the world saying, you know keep your politics to yourself is a line in the song, you know when it comes to singing the folk songs of our land, you know, keep the politics to yourself. in cash was able to you know still perform that song honest television show still poke a little bit of fun, you know at focusingers and perhaps that himself right even at hippies, you know, because he's got him dressed up in these kind of exaggerated costumes. while at the same time defending young people, you know in this monologue he gives about encountering lots of young people on the sunset strip in
los angeles and finding that they're like decent people. you know that if you had crowds like that in his town growing up there to been a fight every 20 feet, but that doesn't happen, you know and what he saw out on the sunset strip, so he's able to he's still able to have a laugh, you know and poke a little bit of fun, but it's clear from the way that he he engages these political issues across like a wide variety of political issues and in many different ways on the television show that he still takes those things very seriously, you know, how did other artists i mean, you've got lee greenwood singing, you know, god bless the usa and as you mentioned merle haggard okie from muskogee, how did artists like that feel about johnny cash and his songs his views? i mean for the most part, you know, he because of the standing
he had particularly after the folsom prison record and you know, he wins all these awards and he gets the television show. i think you know, he's in the at that moment. he was in the pantheon of american country music stars, and they held him in very high regard even if they didn't share exactly the same views and you know on the television show he brought merle haggard on and merle haggard saying okie from muskogee and the fight inside of me, you know these songs that were seen as kind of like we'd call him dog whistle songs today for american conservatives and people who were hawks, you know, and supported richard nixon. but on the same episode he debuted what is truth right and on an episode where he let arlo guthrie sing the song that's really critical of spiro agnew and the nixon administration. he then gave monologue at the end about how they were still a lot of great things happening in this country that they played a bunch of county fairs that
summer and you know, people came with their prized heifers and their apple pies and he kind of like, you know launches himself into a nostalgia trip, you know, so i think it was pretty hard for people who didn't share his political views to feel like he didn't at least give him a chance to air them, you know on the same kind of platform and he had you know, he had a wide range of political views from other artists that come through on the television show. of course, he's his show so you get the last word. you know one of our viewers was asking if you see an an artist who is reminds you of johnny cash today. i mean see lots of artists, you know, not only country music artists, but if we stick to country music, there's there's quite a few who i think take their citizenship seriously and speak out on political issues and because of social media can do it, you know even more
regularly. and across you know, again it kind of across the political spectrum and kind of in between categories too, you know, i think my favorite my personal favorite was because i was asked this once is like if somebody there was somebody in country music today who could have a television show like this, who would i pick and i said margo price because i think margo price does the same kind of subtle like engaged citizen kind of art in her music. she's she's more of like a mix of johnny cash and willie nelson and loretta lynn probably in the way that she she captures, you know issues about or engages with issues that are important to women engages issues about farming because she came from a farm that was lost in the 80s farm crisis and her marijuana. advocacy like willie nelson, you
know, and i think and also in the way that she kind of stands separate from the nashville establishment, you know, that's my personal view, but i think you know, there's lots of other artists who are also doing the same kind of work and that's encouraging sign. you know, i think the worst thing that can happen as i allude in the books introduction is is that people can have a knee-jerk reaction? to celebrities and even the most earnest and well-informed artists because they feel like they're just, you know, abusing their platform as a star or something and it's just like, you know, go back to singing or whatever it is you do. but you know in springsteen for example has been very eloquent about saying that the artist has an important role to play an important role as a citizen to play in the life of the country and i think cash understood that extinctively instinctively. now one of one of our viewers was asking why you think at
times cash would speak bolder than other artists, but then with still sometimes pull this punches in how he phrased his criticisms. yeah, that's a really interesting question. i think you know one of the things that became clear to me in doing the research for the book was that he you know, he enters these waters pretty tentatively like for example on that blood sweat and tears album where you know, it can be no accident that he makes the first three songs on that album this kind of harrowing tale of black working men in america, right, but he doesn't really call attention to it sort of like playing the prison concerts and benefit shows. he's not like waving his hand saying i'm out here doing this. but over the course of the 60s and by the time he has his television show he becomes more confident, you know in speaking out as a citizen and he said
himself that by the time he did the bitter tears album, which was only a few years after the blood sweat and tears album. he was done pulling his punches. i don't think that's entirely true because he did kind of pull his punches a little bit on things like vietnam and i think you could watch the tv show or read a statements and and wish you know as a cash fan who feels one way or another about a political issue that he had been. more bold that he had spoken out more strongly or perhaps less trightly at times on certain issues. and you know why he did or did not do that i think is not always entirely clear, but i think by the time he got to the television show and across the years of the television show. he grew increasingly confident in the role, you know. i was wondering looking at your book cover. you have cash wrapping himself
in the american flag and the way our politics is now one would assume that is a very conservative view. i mean you would you would put him in the red stakes states. i was just curious about the the choice that you and your editors had for the the cover. well the choice there's there's a lot of photographs of johnny cash and flags, right? he made a couple of albums in the 70s ragged old flag album and an album that's called america, you know a 200 years salute in. song i'm getting the subtitle wrong, but both of those you appears with the american flag and the ragged old flag. it really is a ragged old flag hanging behind a mini kind of pointing at it and looking at you the viewer. but i think you know, obviously
the flag. is this symbol that is loaded with meaning and we can read it in lots of different ways and in the cover of the book. to me. what's interesting is he's holding up this flag. that's kind of torn and tattered. you know, this is not a flag that he's about to fly up the flagpole and he himself looks a little torn and tattered, you know, and it's you know, i think it reflects. in the early seventies when the photograph was taken, you know the state of the union and perhaps the state of american citizenship. i mean mostly we thought it was really bold image in a great image to go with the title like citizen cash, but it also reflects kind of the ways that you can read different meanings into cash in his politics and the way that that has happened right? it's hard to separate it. sometimes as that woman at the
at the auction house and i debated over ragged old flag. you know, she thought that was clear evidence that he was a died in the wool patriot, you know and others think that song is, you know, a critique of america of the america that he was living in at the time, you know, and what had happened to the flag during the watergate years, for example i really agree with you just to jump in. i've just i'm stuck by captivated by this picture. i've looked at it a lot. and yes for some reason conservatives are more prone to waving flag. but this is it's in black and white. he's dressed in black. there's something about his visage and expression that is a little inscrutable and it's really not clear what's being signified in this thing. i think it's one of these it's worse audience. say it research roshak test, press exactly in different ways, but i was i've been mesmerized by that. yeah. michael did your views of johnny cash change?
throughout your research. i mean if you go back to the you know to the very beginning where i was a you know, kind of late breaking cash fan like my my memory of johnny cash when i was a kid is similar to john's like i remembered him. doing these television specials, which i thought were kind of geared towards, you know, my parents and older generations and i didn't i didn't get some of the cornball humor, and i just i didn't really get him, you know, i didn't know anything about his son record years and in those days it took until the 90s when the american recordings albums came out and i i went back and listened to the sun records and prison albums and things like that and i became a pretty passionate cash fan. but i you the thing that what got me started was the vietnam war because that was where i had done all my research and i had written this article that came out several years ago.
wasn't really thinking that i was ever going to write a book. and so the thing that i really learned in the course of writing the book. was just how deeply he was engaged across all of these different issues including and especially civil rights right including on race because he himself never really wrote about it in or wrote very little about it in his autobiographies. and his other biographers didn't have much to say in fact, he's often kind of criticized for being very outspoken on behalf of native americans and not saying much about african-americans, but then as it turns out and as i explained as a whole chapter dedicated to cashion race, he was deeply committed to understanding the issue into and to engaging it as a citizen and so that was probably the biggest surprise to me, you know. one i want to ask one last question if you if you had an
opportunity to sit down with johnny cash. and ask him a question. what would you what would you ask him? well there are so many questions. i mean, so just not to. how to beat a dead horse and stick with the same theme but you know, i'm interested in the decisions that he made about making that blood sweat and tears album and specifically he makes lyrical decisions. he updates the lyrics and some of these songs which are you know, we're like leadbelly songs or famous folk songs or in the case of another man done gone were was a song you would only have heard on an al lomax recording and i kind of chart the way that other artists, you know, updated the song and added their lyrics but cash never really talked about it. he never he never said. yeah. this is why i decided to add this line or that line and in
another man done he makes that song. even more frightening than it's ever been recorded ever before and i would love to just talk to him about that, you know about what was happening in his life in his mind in america at the time they made him decide to take this already pretty scary song and make it even scarier. you'll have everybody will have an opportunity to to learn more about johnny cash. the book is citizen cash michael stewart. foley want to thank you. thank john mcmillan acapella books has i want to thank you, thank you, john mcmillian. a cappella books has copies of "citizen cash" with an autographed bookplate inside so you wantt to get it there. gentlemen, thank you all very much. i enjoyed this immensely. >> thank you. >> and thank you. >> join us next time and check out a cappella books events for
other events, author events et cetera can do. thank you all, and had a good evening pick. >> saturday night april 30 "the daily show" host trevor noah headlines the first white house correspondents' association dinner since 2019. president biden is also expected to attend. making this a first time since 2016 a sitting president has made an appearance. our television coverage begins at 8 p.m. eastern on c-span your will of sights and sounds from inside the ballroom and highlights from past dinners ahead of the speaking program. coverage on c-span.org and the c-span now video app begins live at 6 p.m. eastern where you can watch celebrities, journalists and other guests walk the red carpet as a bribe for the dinner. the white house correspondents' association dinner live saturday night april 30 on c-span, c-span radio, c-span.org and the c-span now video app.
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