Born of the poverty that he knew as the son of Arkansas sharecroppers--and later, of the tyranny of his addiction to drugs--his vision of dignity and justice compelled him to stand unwaveringly with oppressed, beaten down people and to bid others to join him. His sometimes dour persona and the priority that he gave to the lives of downcast people might not radiate the positivity of Curtis Mayfield's "We're a Winner" or "Move On Up," yet Cash's witness offers a powerful word of uplift just the same. Throughout his embattled life he lent a voice to those without one and, with it, a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of transcendence.
Cash was a man of faith, one with deep roots in the Baptist church who, despite periods of dissipation and doubt, remained a Christian throughout his life. His identification with people on the margins, though, tended to stem more from his hard-fought inner struggle than it did from a theologically grounded vision of transcendence like that of the beloved community or train to glory. Cash's striving was rooted in faith, certainly, and its implications for human community are many and far-reaching. Yet more than anything, his hunger for transcendence was tied to his ongoing fight for self-integration, to his basic but far from simple urge for wholeness. Only from there did his struggle seem to open outward-and prophetically-onto the larger world.
Nowhere did Cash articulate his quest for wholeness more indelibly than in "I Walk the Line," the follow-up to "Folsom Prison Blues" that became a No. 1 country and Top 20 pop hit for him in 1956. He wrote the song as a pledge of fidelity to his first wife, Vivian Liberto, while he was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Air Force. Over the years, however, his vow to keep the ends out for the tie that binds took on much greater existential significance. His message driven home by the obdurate beat of the Tennessee Two, Cash seemed to be confessing just how desperately he wanted to unite the disparate strands of his conflicted self.
And he certainly was conflicted, as much as any American pop icon of the past half-century. He was a doubter and a believer, and he could be hip as well as square, a rebel and a voice of reconciliation. He was an addict and an evangelist, a protestor of the war in Vietnam and a guest at the Nixon White House, a singer of unexpurgated odes to murder like "Delia's Gone" and an aficionado of clodhopper cornpone whose second wife, June Carter Cash, was one of the funniest comics in the history of country music.
Even his recordings, which encompassed country, folk, blues, gospel, pop, and rock even as they influenced punk, grunge, and rap, ultimately could not be pigeonholed or pinned down. Unwilling, if not at times unable, to let any one thing define him, Cash could truly say, with Walt Whitman, "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes)."
In the end it was Cash's hard-won multiplicity, his struggle--not nearly as facile as the admission, "I find it very very easy to be true," in "I Walk the Line," claims--to remain true to his unruly heart that afforded him whatever measure of transcendence he knew. And again, not by disavowing or collapsing the tensions that dogged and defined him, but by embracing and lifting them up, just as he embraced and lifted up people on society's margins and urged the rest of us to open our hearts to them as well.