In my most recent post, I wrote about “Heartaches by the Number,” a book by David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren, which was a Christmas present from my wife. Having read more if it, I have more to say about it.
Specifically, this: Cantwell and Friskics-Warren, are capital “L” liberals, it seems to me, and pretty anti-capitalist. I’m not saying this mares the book, just noting it.
Example #1: Under the entry for “Life’s Little Ups and Down,” recorded by Charlie Rich and written by Charlie’s wife Margaret Ann Rich, Cantwell writes, “her similie effectively nails the inevitability of life’s highs and lows, not to mention the way a market economy can keep smacking you down right back where you started, love and hard work be damned.”
Example #2: In the entry for “A Satisfied Mind” by Porter Wagoner, Cantwell writes, “‘A Satisfied Mind’ expresses one of country music’s defining sentiments — money can’t buy happiness, and, at any rate, ‘I’m richer by far with a satisified mind.’ While people at every rung of the American class ladder give lip service to this sentiment, it lies particularly close to the heart of the largely working class country music audience — a community that resides in a worldwheree great material wealth is denied them by the same society that treats it as a reason for being.”
Example #3: Now we get around to the entry for “Folsom Prison Blues,” by Johnny Cash. Friskics-Warren writes that the prisoner in the song is being twice oppressed, first by prison walls and second by his position in society, where the wealth of those rich folks in the dining car smoking fine cigars has always been denied him. “It’s the unfairness of it all,” Friskics-Warren writes, “and especially the way those fat cats ride on the backs of people like him, that stick’s in Johnny’s craw. Even more than the stone walls and steel bars that hold him, it’s the injustice that makes him hang his head and cry.”
I can’t speak to the author’s interpretations of examples one and two, because I haven’t heard those songs in many years. But “Folsom Prison Blues” is practically part of my soul. And Friskics-Warren couldn’t possibly be more wrong in his reading of this lyric. If there is any politics in the song at all, it is the politics of accepting responsibility, a very conservative notion. Remember, the prisoner admits he did wrong, stating matter-of-factly that he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. He doesn’t equivocate. He doesn’t strike the pose of a socio-economic victim. He doesn’t blame the other guy or somebody else. He says he did it. That’s it. He’s in prison because he did it, and he knows he deserves to be in prison. There’s nothing that will make a man weep more intensely that the realization he has nobody to blame but himself.
The prisoner doesn’t envy or begrudge the rich man and his cigar. He wants it for himself. The folks on that train symbolize freedom — a freedom that is moving past and away from Folsom Prison every day, and that’s where the singer wants to be — as far from Folsom Prison and he can get. That metaphorical freedom gathers intensity from the symbolism of the fancy dining car and those cigars. These are symbols of economic freedom, to be sure, but no doubt, the prisoner would like that kind of freedom, too. In fact, he states flatly that not only does he want to ride that train, he wants to own it.
But you can’t achieve economic freedom doing life in prison.
Further, remember also that Cash calls these passengers “folk,” which is a friendly, not apejorativee term. There isn’t an ounce of resentment toward these folks in either Cash’s language or tone.
A free man in our society has the same chance as Sam Walton or Ray Kroc to become rich and powerful. Our protagonist in Folsom Prison seems to acknowledge this fact by the plain way he states his predicament. He did wrong. He’s in prison. He know’s he’ll never be free. And that train whistle reminds him of what could have been if only he’d listened to his mama.
All I’m saying is that if you’re going to dress your music criticism up in political swag, at least get your story straight.