Friday, August 26, 2011

"Art and Music and the Pronouncements of Young Children"

(Note: originally published in 2011, I am sharing this again to coincide with the release of Roseanne Cash's "The River and the Thread").

Earlier this week, Fresh Air presented again an episode with Rosanne Cash in which she described the making of her album The List.

Rosanne is the daughter of the Man in Black, and was married for a time to that "Southeast Texas hayseed," singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell. (Click here for Crowell's tribute to Johnny Cash).

When Rosanne was 18 and beginning her own music career, her father gave her a handwritten list of "100 Essential Country Songs" representing her "musical genealogy." Rosanne says the list is more aptly titled "100 Essential American Songs," because it includes examples of all those strains that feed modern country music: folk, protest songs, Delta Blues, gospel, Appalachian, etc. Of course, the musical history of the extended Carter/Cash family by itself is a large part of the history of American country music. (And British punk rock and new wave history, too, as Nick Lowe is also part of that extended family).

The List contains the first 12 of those 100, including versions of "Sea of Heartbreak,"She's Got You," "500 Miles,"Girl from the North Country," and "Motherless Children".

The songs, Cash's performances of them, and the music history in this podcast are significant standing alone, but I was also struck by the challenges she encountered prior to creating The List, and moved by the way she has not just survived, but thrived, with real grace. Despite losing her parents (and her stepmother June Carter Cash), undergoing brain surgery, being forced to stop singing and performing for several years due to polyps on her throat, and going through a divorce, Cash never asked "Why Me?" but instead "Why Not Me?" And the things that gave her strength? "Art and Music and the Pronouncements of Young Children," as well as a sense of humor and the love of her husband.

Cash did not immediately record or share the songs on the list, in part because becoming an individual necessarily required independence from her father, and in part because she could not appreciate the full meaning of that gift until after she experienced the loss of her father. But in an additional and beautiful paradox, her acceptance, exploration, performance, and recording of The List (made possible by her reflections on the life of her father) revealed that the "gift" Johnny gave Rosanne was really a part of her that she now was able to discover on her own terms. She summed up that revelation by calling on the words of T.S. Eliot:

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time."

And now she is sharing her gift, so that we all can more fully appreciate our common "musical genealogy," and maybe, just maybe, spend a moment or two paying attention to the timeless and boundless things we share.

I eagerly await the release of more of the songs on the List, and hope that "Keep on the Sunny Side" (you didn't think I would conclude this post about gifts from family without mentioning Mother Maybelle, did you?) is one of them.

Update (November 26, 2012):  Click here to see Roseanne Cash and John Leventhal record "The Wayfaring Stranger" as part of The 78 Project.  Thanks to Ron Tate (@sccounsel) for pointing it out to me.