The Gospel of the Man in Black
On May 11, 1965, Johnny Cash was arrested for, of all things, picking flowers. Wandering around Starkville, Mississippi in the early morning, Cash stumbled into a flower garden in someone's yard. A cop pulled up, questioned Cash, then put him in jail for the night.
Cash went on to tell the story as if he were an innocent man maybe just picking daisies for a lady friend. But Cash was really arrested for public drunkenness, one of seven times throughout his famed life where he would be arrested, most charges stemming from abuse of drugs or alcohol. Cash never spent time in prison, however. None of his arrests amounted to anything more than a few hours behind bars.
Well, they're bound to get you.
'Cause they got a curfew.
And you go to the Starkville City jail.
(from “Starkville City Jail”)
The song "Starkville City Jail" was first performed ironically enough at San Quentin prison, and lives on through the live album recorded there. It was there Cash performed for thousands of inmates, something he did for decades as a musician. Every time he performed at a prison, he did so for free.
The burden Cash felt for those behind bars was great. This article from 2013 details how Johnny Cash worked to bring about prison reform. He worked to portray an outlaw image, and prisoners embraced him. Beyond that, those running prisons knew that having Johnny Cash sing at their prison would provide a temporary reprieve from what was, for many criminals, a life of hell.
The atrocities in prisons across America are well-documented. But what would prompt Cash, a man who was never really hardened criminal himself, to care? There are different stories surrounding that, and most of them point to a similar component: Johnny Cash's great love for Jesus.
The Man in Black (as he was aptly named for the numerous performances he did wearing black) was riddled with addictions throughout his career. Pills and alcohol caused rifts with friends, ended a marriage, and took away good chunks of the prime of his career. But a brother of his who was committed to living a life preaching the Gospel of Jesus to others planted a seed in Cash years before. Jack Cash was slightly older than Johnny but was decades older in spiritual maturity. His love for Christ exuded to the whole family. And when Johnny finally came to know Christ personally in his life, the effects reverberated in his career and personal life.
“Johnny Cash was not only a legend but was a close personal friend,” Billy Graham once said. “Johnny was a good man who also struggled with many challenges in his life. Johnny was a deeply religious man. He and June came to a number of our Crusades over a period of many years."
Johnny and his wife June became close friends with Billy and Ruth Graham, even touring to perform at Graham's evangelistic crusades. And while the impact made in those crusades was great, it was his moments of singing songs to criminals that provided the greatest impact.
"And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:40)
It was Jesus Christ who declared the vast importance of caring for those less fortunate. For many, that includes children and the homeless and, in today's contentious political climate, refugees. Johnny Cash took the commands of Christ importantly, so he served those that were society's most forgotten: criminals.
His concerts for prisoners weren't so much a performer hitting a quota of charity stops, but instead a close friend who happened to play guitar and have a band spending a few hours with them. Listening to the albums recorded at various prisons, Cash performed his upbeat songs (Ring of Fire), love songs (Walk the Line), songs that connected to the prisoner’s life (Folsom Prison Blues) and songs that connected to the prisoner’s soul (He Turned the Water Into Wine). Cash knew his audience well: he talked with inmates individually, learning their hardships and concerns. He didn’t pretend that they were innocent men. Rather he worked to show they were human beings in need of rehabilitation, not just punishment.
Johnny Cash would be 85 years old today if he were still around. His legacy obviously lives on through his songs. But unlike most great musicians who pass on and leave a legacy of little more than great musical artistry, Cash did more. His legacy was loving those that nobody else would dare love. His legacy was connecting with those nobody else dared to connect with. For that reason, the Man in Black is to be celebrated, and should be a reminder that life is to be lived no just for our own desires, but to help those that nobody else seems willing to help, from orphans to the homeless to refugees from the middle east to prisoners in San Quentin and Starkville.