Thursday 27 October 2016

How Johnny Cash's daughter reminded me of power of place

Gerard O'Regan

Published 06/05/2014 | 02:30

Rosanne Cash. Photo: Getty Images
Rosanne Cash. Photo: Getty Images

'The American South – there's just a kind of poetry to be found in all of it.'' That's what Johnny Cash's eldest daughter, Rosanne, told us as she took us on a journey through time and place, into the very heartlands of Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.

  • Go To

She also told us she had recently been on a kind of personal odyssey – rediscovering those southern roots that shaped her father from his early childhood. So she has spent time delving into dark hills and stalking canyons, ravines and deep rivers, as well as various small-world towns. She wants to feel the forces that fuelled her father's music – and indeed his life. And it is a journey through which she will better get to know herself.

Rosanne has spent the past two decades living in New York, cultivating, at least in part, the persona of an uptown Manhattan woman. But now in her middle years she finally accepts the lure of the South never really went away. In her younger days, she had fought hard to reject, and rebel against, long distant memories, buried in the soil of Tennessee and Mississippi.

There were obvious reasons why she would have wished to break with the past. The collapse of Johnny Cash's marriage to his first wife left a painful legacy, and she was reared by her mother. Meanwhile, her father's well-documented drug addiction problems complicated their relationship even more during her teens and 20s. And so in an ongoing search for "some new place'' she subsequently lived in California and London before settling in New York. But the memories from some old places, which had helped make her what she was, never really went away.

And so she took us on a journey. First off there was the one-time family homestead in Dyess, Arkansas, where Johnny Cash grew up. It was built by the government at the height of the Great Depression for families hovering on the edges of poverty. Music, as we know, would be his rescue from what would have been a broken life.

It remained abandoned for many years – all those who lived there having long since gone. Inside, the cobwebs, and the timbers shattered by wind and rain, were testament to how things move on. But since Cash's death, it has become a mecca of sorts, for so many fans who have traversed his life in song. The authorities are now finally turning into some variation of a museum.

She then travelled on to Oxford, Mississippi, and to the home of William Faulkner, one of the many great writers spawned south of the Mason Dixon line. He would spend his literary life transfixed by how much the present can be enmeshed in what has gone before. As he wrote: 'The past is never dead. It's not even the past.'

And then on to the little town of Money in Mississippi, where a young black teenager, Emmet Till, inadvertently changed the course of American history. Having allegedly 'wolf whistled' at a married white woman, he stirred a mountain of old hatreds and fear in the deeply segregated South of the 1950s.

Some days later the woman's husband, and an accomplice, took the teenager away to a barn, where they beat him senseless, gouged out one of his eyes, and then shot him through the head. They then infamously dumped his body in the nearby Tallahatchie river. There was international outrage when an all-white jury subsequently refused to convict the obviously guilty killers. But the quest for civil rights would never be quite the same again.

Rosanne Cash transported us to all these places, in an array of songs that make up her latest, critically acclaimed album, during a concert in Dublin's Vicar Street on Sunday night. It was a powerful evocation of how geography and locale, can retain an ever-lingering grip on imagination, mood and memory.

When it was all over and we trooped into the Dublin night, the power of place and its hold over the psyche came to mind in how it haunts another land, far distant from the US.

Crimea retains a mystical allure for Russia. There are many reasons for this – most of them intangible. But it exists. And it is a feeling that millions of Russians simply can't get out of their system. It could be something as banal as Crimea's sensual summer warmth in a country which suffers such Siberian cold. And Crimea has enthralled many of its greatest writers.

So we should try and understand why Vladimir Putin has risked so much to keep it in the embrace of the motherland. Therefore, the best approach to this burgeoning international crisis might be to let Russia retain its hold over Crimea. It is part of that nation's soul.

But then we should draw a very definite line in the sand.

Irish Independent

Read More