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

E.R. Shipp

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Johnny Cash's country, and mine | Much as I love movies, I came to them late in life. Growing up in a segregated South, where we faced humiliation just by entering a movie theater, I did not see many first-run films. And on television, our family of eight always gravitated to other types of programs, especially variety shows like those hosted by Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett and, yes, Johnny Cash.

His death at 71 early Friday had a more profound effect on my emotional cultural archives than did the deaths of Katharine Hepburn and other Hollywood lights whose movies I look forward to seeing again and again.

A black woman enjoying Johnny Cash? You bet. Johnny Cash was the champion of the working class and the downtrodden and a griot of Southern culture. If you are Southern, especially middle-age and older, your life's experience was probably captured in his songs.

Oh, sure, there were times in my college student-as-black-nationalist period that I would not admit to enjoying Cash and would neither buy nor listen to his music. That would not have been cool, especially among the crowd advocating that blacks take over Southern states and secede from the Union. Go figure.

But I always came back to Cash and other country singers, including Charley Pride, who has remained an anomaly as a black superstar in this metier, and Ray Charles, who can do country as well as other forms of popular music. The Neville brothers' music is also tinged with country - Louisiana-style.

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But it's not cool - or politically correct - to make a big deal of that if you are black. Or young, as in the MTV generation that embraced his last album, "American IV: The Man Comes Around." Of one song, "Hurt," a Rolling Stone magazine editor said: "It's a record that's going to be hard to ignore." As will all his music and the hardscrabble but ultimately patriotic, spiritual life he lived devoted to family. His life was a prolonged blues suite.

When I was really introduced to the blues in the 1980s, that music was not cool, and for too many way-too-cool black folks, it's still not. I thought that, too, until I met the legendary Theresa Needham, at whose sort-of blues joint on Chicago's South Side many a white rock star came to jam with the black guys whose records they'd cut their teeth on.

It's funny how even in music we are forced to take sides - politically, yes, but also on the basis of race and ethnicity. The twentysomethings may have it right. They can be white and more hip hop than any black kid I see in my church in Harlem.

Cross pollination is what the U.S. has been partly built on, as Johnny Cash told us through his music, from rock to rockabilly to country to gospel. As someone once told me about the blues, "There are universal expressions in the music. You can read Shakespeare about lost love, or you can listen to Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon." And you could listen to Johnny Cash, across the generations.

The idea extends to soul food - po' folks' food made chic. We can all enjoy a piece of fried chicken, some greens, potato salad, corn bread and iced tea. But I can also enjoy Italian and Dutch versions of food from the peasant soul. On these shores, it's all American cuisine.

If we are what we eat, I suggest we eat more. And turn on the boombox or radio while we do so. Listen to a little Johnny Cash in the mix. As Louis Armstrong would have said, "What a wonderful world that would be."

E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News. She won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996. Comment by clicking here.


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