John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Enduring Magic of Johnny Cash

His singing of “I Guess Things Happen That Way” and other songs wipe out any other version.

By - Aug 4th, 2016 01:47 pm
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Johnny Cash. Photo from Facebook.

Johnny Cash. Photo from Facebook.

Never in the history of pop music has there ever been an artist of such humble vocal talent who went around stealing other’s songs with ease. Johnny Cash was never smooth or always perfectly in tune, but when he sang his songs, it was impossible to hear them any other way. And when he borrowed songs written by others, he didn’t really have to give them back — he was their new owner. Quite a magic trick!

I remember seeing an impressionist on a TV (I don’t know which impressionist or which TV show) who said Cash not only sang out of tune — which I’m not sure I buy — but he also talked that way. The very funny thought of speaking out of tune has stuck with me. It seems like a contradiction, but it works in this case.

So how could he be such a great singer? That’s a question I’ve never heard an answer to, but let me attempt one. Some comedians are described as being funny just because they are. Tracy Morgan, Buddy Hackett and Lucille Ball come to mind. Johnny Cash, with his plunging baritone, was the embodiment of authenticity and believability that is everything in a singer. You can’t lie and sing at the same time, and you never had the impression The Man In Black would ever attempt to do so. He was a great singer because he was.

Cash used that implied moral authority and bone-deep honesty to make his already fine songs ring like a hammer on an anvil. Even when he did more pop-ish country songs like today’s selection, “I Guess Thing Happen That Way,” it had the convincing weight of an aggrieved big guy. I have no idea how big a man he was, but he sang the way you might imagine a giant would.

I chose this song for that reason. It’s lightweight — a trifle, really. You would say it’s out of character for him to sing it, and you’d be right. But after you hear his version, try to imagine anyone else taking it on. He simply wipes out the possibility of another version. Like an Olympian gymnast, Johnny has stuck his landing.

This song wasn’t his, it was written by Cowboy Jack Clement, an interesting, Zelig-like figure in rockabilly and country music. He was at Sun Records at the beginning, working as a producer/engineer and supplying the occasional song to their artists. “Great Balls Of Fire,” probably his most well-known song, almost went unrecorded. Jerry Lee Lewis had to be talked into it by Sam Phillips. His sanctified background flared up when he heard the title — it had to be the devil’s music. The heated conversation between the him and Phillips, which was captured by the recording engineer (Clement?) is a classic moment in in rock history.

Cash, every bit as religious and certainly as conflicted as The Killer, knew a hit when he heard it. If you have the time, it’s worth watching it on Hadley’s Town Hall Party, where it rocks a little more than the recorded version and the young Cash displays his natural charisma. It was in this period that he was a pill poppin’ maniac, and still every inch a pro.

The lyrics:

Well, you asked me if I’ll forget my baby
I guess I will, someday
I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way
You asked me if I’ll get along
I guess I will, some way
I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way

God gave me that girl to lean on
Then He put me on my own
Heaven, help me be a man and
Have the strength to stand alone
I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way

You asked me if I’ll miss her kisses
I guess I will, everyday
I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way
You asked me if I’ll find another
I don’t know, I can’t say
I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way

God gave me that girl to lean on
Then He put me on my own
Heaven, help me be a man and
Have the strength to stand alone
I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way

© Jack Clement

There some very nice spaces in the verses, little breaths inserted between the lines. It’s important to let a little air in once in awhile, if only to contemplate for a half second what the singer is saying. The arrangement does a similar thing, with a snappy call and response between the guitar and background voices. Add God and heaven to the bridges and it balances on the high wire between salvation and damnation. Meanwhile, the song is stickier than gum on a summer sidewalk.

Pop with gravitas — who knew? It’s hard to do. This one is textbook in the way it sneaks in using the Trojan horse of melody, rhythm and harmony to tell a story of real heartbreak. Cash did the heavy thing on the last “American Recordings” produced by Rick Rubin. Of course that works like gangbusters, too. He was at the end of his life, his wife already gone and his voice by then sounded like it was emanating from the sepulcher. Real range is someone who can sell “A Boy Named Sue” and “Hurt.” It couldn’t be done by artists who are more in love with their voices than with the song they’re singing. I won’t name any names, but I bet you can think of a few.

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: The Enduring Magic of Johnny Cash”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Pop with gravitas? What an oxymoron, but there is something so authentic and sincere about Johnny Cash that just about everyone identifies with him. Poor June Carter, who wrote the lyrics to many of the songs he sang later in life, but had to try to get him out of pill-popping and drug-taking and drunken binges for years. And then poor Johnny Cash, when she died before he did and he was inconsolable! What a fiery pair (onstage!). And I liked it that he performed at prisons, where men related to him, and he made them feel less alone (since so many are abandoned by their families onces they’re imprisoned). As much a hero of a man for being a humanitarian as he is a fine musician (and I don’t hear him singing off-key at all – just not singing like everyone else does, but more with a literary, speaking-to-you bent). Thanks for this great article, it truly stimulated me!

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