Saturday, June 25, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 25: A Song That Makes You Laugh

I can't believe I made it 25 days into the 30 Day Song Challenge without picking a Johnny Cash song. I could probably do all 30 days of this Challenge ONLY picking Johnny Cash songs. Maybe I'll start over in July and do that.

I suppose it's appropriate that I finally picked Johnny Cash on the day that I'm to select "a song that makes me laugh." The novice Cash fan may not appreciate just how funny his songs can be, what with all their drinking and philandering and incarcerating and repenting and killing men in Reno just to watch them die. But the truth is, Cash had a way of telling the stories of life's lesser moments with a healthy helping of... well, see the picture to your left. All it takes is a little irony in your lyrics, a little snark in your voice, a little twinkle in your eye and, all of the sudden, an execution song becomes downright amusing-- even when YOU are the one set to be hanged.

That's the story of my selection for today. Poor Sam Hall, he killed a man (so they said) and a-swingin' he must go. But before he goes, he intends to give the Big Fat Finger to anyone and everyone who has come to look. Here's my choice, Johnny Cash's "Sam Hall" from his 2002 album The Man Comes Around:


When Johnny sings "so I said, Sheriff, how are YOU?" I can't help but bust out laughing every time. And there's something about Sam Hall's declaration "I hate you one and all" that seems less the expression of a cold-blooded killer and more the expression of a frustrated 2-yr-old who's just been busted. Cash wrote a lot of "epic" stories during his time-- "Folsom Prison," "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," "Long Black Veil"-- but this is not one of them. "Sam Hall" is the story of a small, mundane, ordinary and thoroughly petty man who just so happened to do something noteworthy. The fact that Cash grounds the song in the personality of Sam Hall and not his actions is what makes it so funny, and so believable. For that reason, it belongs right up there with "A Boy Named Sue" as one of Cash's best.

Johnny Cash was one of the greatest songwriters to have ever lived, in my view. He wasn't an innovative musician or even a great singer. At heart, he was an ordinary, rural, somewhat broken man who loved his pills and his bottle as much as his wife and his God. But he was emotionally plugged-in to all of the mistakes and missteps that befall our misbegotten species. Humanity-- a weak and assailable and resilient, but quite often very funny, group of talking animals-- was the bread and butter of Johnny Cash's art, and we're all better for it. I've said it before and I'll say it again: if God's speaks to humanity, He does so through Johnny Cash.

Long live the Man in Black.

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