Jewish World Review Sept. 16, 2003 /19 Elul 5763

Paul Greenberg

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Hey Porter: Johnny Cash comes home | June Carter wasn't here anymore, so there really wasn't much point in his sticking around much longer, was there?

Truth to tell, which was Johnny Cash's way, he really wasn't that much of a singer, and while he could play that thing, nobody would call him a guitar virtuoso, either.

His instrument was really himself, or rather us. We were his soundbox, the string he plucked. What he was, in a peculiar popular way, was a writer, with his predictable rhymes and meters and all, so that even those who might turn up the corner of their refined mouths when they thought of his songs would find themselves recognizing the very first note of a Johnny Cash song and slipping into . . . not reverie but reality. And their feet would start tapping.

He was a storyteller; lots of singers are. But the story this one told was ours, again and again, just in different ways. His soil was our soil, however differently it had shaped us, and wherever we would finally be buried in it.

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What he sang wasn't the songs but the prison bars and amphetamines and black clothes and tumbledown churches and unpaved roads and drab funerals without a point and cotton fields that needed weeding and bits of yesterday's paper swirling down a dirty street.

His whiskery voice had the sound of railroad tracks rumbling with something afar off, and eternal vows that would last the night.

The man himself stood behind his songs -- his cocksure humility, that momentary pause while he took you in and before he'd say anything and so commit himself. It all came through even in the bad songs. He himself was the warrant for what he sang.

My favorite was his very first song, which I just couldn't shake: "Hey Porter." Maybe because it was about railroads and Dixie and coming home, always popular winners, but mainly because it was about returning, like Jacob, to a place that was holy but we knew it not.

That song had the sound of the Jubilee Year about it. Even that long ago he could come as close to soul as any white boy could. There was nothing quite like the feeling "Hey Porter" stirred, especially if you first heard it up North.

Well, John, you can get off the train now. You're home. In the real Dixie. Maybe it's the gospel strain in that first of his songs, but I have a feeling he's just started to live. Under all the ordinary despair he sang, there was always that deep, deep chord of hope. Else he couldn't have sung us the way he did.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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