For it was altogether impossible for me to find
any external criterion of the truth.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Dichtung und Wahrheit
We are driving west. We are driving west on Highway 160 between Billings, where my father went to high school, and Aurora, where my mother went to high school, in the maroon Ford Aerostar with the gray stripe. My father is driving and my mother is in the passenger seat beside him and I am behind them, a gray Nintendo GameBoy in my lap. We are driving west and my parents are singing. When I breeze into that city, people gonna stoop and bow. Ha! We are driving west and I wish I had remembered my headphones. All them women gonna make me, teach ’em what they don’t know how.Honey, I’m gonna snowball Jackson. As we drive, my parents call and respond alongside Johnny and June. As I drive now, some twenty years later on a different highway in a different state when I am no longer a boy, I collapse mythology, imagine my mother as June, my father as Johnny. Yeah, we’re goin’ to Jackson, ain’t never comin’ back.
We call and we respond not only to the present, the people who surround us at any given time, but also to a mythos of the past. “Call-and-response patterns,” Maggie Sale explains, “provide a basic model that depends and thrives upon audience performance and improvisation, which work together to ensure that the art will be meaningful or functional to the community.” Or that it will last. Of course, neither my parents, nor Johnny Cash, nor June Carter, nor the white Christianity they all share invented call and response. We can trace the form back to the Black church in America, and before that to the fields where Black slaves worked, and before that, to Africa, where call and response was a form of democratic communication in civic life. Like so many things, white people have stolen it and rendered it mostly uncool; I think back now to Maranatha, the church camp I attended as a teenager, and the lame-ass camp songs we sang: Oh you can’t get to heaven (oh you can’t get to heaven) in a limousine (in a limousine). But in my often contradictory opinion, the canon of Cash does a decent enough job with the art form.
Like the song, the poem, too, may be like a call and a response. Perhaps that between truth, the world, and perception, the poet’s place within that world. Forgive the pun, but Cash walked the line of truth and perception his entire career. Of his many comeback songs, none holds such a prominent place in the Cash catalog as “Folsom Prison Blues,” where the star seems to claim he landed himself in prison because, “When I was just a baby my mama told me, Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns. But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Like the poet, Cash reveled in this type of myth making, in this art of exaggeration: Johnny spent a night in jail, not prison, just once for carrying methamphetamines into the United States from Mexico without a prescription. He never shot anyone, was not violent in the physical sense, though Cash always tried to live up to his badass perception; in the 1997 autobiography, Cash opines, “I’ve done no direct physical violence to people, but I certainly hurt many of them.” On a recent phone call, my father, currently in chemotherapy and newly taken to talking, to bouts of long, meandering phone conversations, told me something similar, “I’ve burnt plenty of fields in my life, Son.”
In the same Ford Aerostar we are driving south. I am a second grader in the front seat next to my father. I am the happiest boy in the world because I am in the front seat next to my father and we are driving south to Disney World. Cash’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” trickles from the radio, and this is not a happy song, though I don’t know it then. Call him drunken Ira Hayes / He won’t answer anymore / Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian / Nor the Marine that went to war. Listening now, I see how this ballad represents some of Cash’s most conflicted feelings, those of politics and social justice, like here, his sadness for stolen Native Americans’ land and lives alongside some sort of praise for the marine in Vietnam, a marine who is part of a mission by the United States to secure the land of another native population for capitalism, just as the marine joins a long tradition of the United States doing this to native populations both domestically and abroad. It is not a happy song and it strikes me that in memory we are not listening to something else, like “Jackson” or maybe “Papa Sang Bass,” duets between Cash and Carter, which would become duets between my father and mother as we drove in the Ford Aerostar.
Memory like the song like the poem is conflicted. Why am I in the front seat next to my father? Why is Mom lying down in the back, the very back, of the van and why is the radio turned low because I remember now my father is saying, “We have to be very quiet. Your mother is upset.” It is more than twenty years later, but I call Mom to ask about that trip, if she remembers why we left home so quickly and why she was sleeping in the back. “You don’t know?” she asks over the telephone, her voice quiet because my niece is asleep upon her lap. My mother tells me why we went on the trip: Her favorite brother, my Uncle Dennis, was dying of AIDS and had called to ask if he could live with us; the next day, my father told my mother he had slept with a woman on a business trip to Kansas City. “I told your father we were getting out of town, taking you to Disney World,” my mother tells me now, “I was drugged out of my mind.” But in my mind, I am the boy in the front seat next to his father and his mother is just tired but they are going to Disney World so he is the happiest boy in the world. Call this, perhaps, an investment I learned from Johnny Cash: the Sweet Revision of Memory.
Or perhaps it is the Myth of Cash that revises memory, sanitizes memory into art. Or perhaps this revision is the role of the artist, the poet, the songwriter. The biggest hit of Cash’s career was 1963’s “Ring of Fire,” and it, perhaps more than any other, is his signature song. Despite a lacking knowledge of both country and rock music history, I doubt there are few above the age of twenty who cannot recognize the song from those opening trumpet riffs. Cash loved classic poetry and in the early sixties, most assumed he wrote the song based on one of his favorite epics, Dante’s Inferno. But it wasn’t Cash who wrote the song, it was his on-again, off-again, poetry-loving mistress, June Carter. Carter wrote the song about Cash himself after finding “Love is like a burning ring of fire” underlined in a book of Elizabethan poetry. Her sister Anita first recorded it, but when Johnny had a dream, or a vision, as he referred to it, about falling into a fiery ring as a mariachi band played overhead, he went to June and said he just had to sing the song, and that she, Anita, and their mother Maybelle just had to sing backup. And it seems so funny now: Johnny’s biggest hit was penned by the woman with whom he was having an affair, who wrote about how destructive, how damning loving him could be, and she sang harmony alongside her mother and sister. And it seems so right: That only in the hands of the right person—the artist, the poet, the songwriter—could the lines become immortalized.
In Florida, my mother spent most days in the dark bedroom of the condo we rented. Every morning, my father said she had a migraine, and we drove off to Disney World, to spinning teacups and Space Mountain. I was the happiest boy in the world then, “But I remember everything,” Johnny would sing in his last single, “Hurt,” which was actually a cover of Nine Inch Nails. Or as Gwendolyn Brooks writes, “Sweet is it, sweet is it / To sleep in the coolness / Of snug unawareness.” Memory does not always revise so sweetly. Like Cash, the poet must walk a line. Unlike Cash, the poet cannot find it very, very easy to be true.