Cash built bridges with his music

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/music/la-et-backtracking21aug21,1,3065605.story?coll=la-entnews-music&ctrack=1&cset=true 

DVD of Man in Black’s ’60s-era TV show is testament to his philosophy of peace and unity.

By Robert Hilburn
August 21, 2007
 

Beautiful music

Beautiful music

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'Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down'

‘Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’

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The first-ever DVD drawn from Johnny Cash’s landmark 1969-71 TV series would be a pop treasure even if it only offered performances by such celebrated guests as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Louis Armstrong and Merle Haggard.

But “The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show,” a two-disc package that will be released Sept. 18 by CMV/Columbia/Legacy, delivers far more.

You realize the larger ambition of the collection when the first images on the disc aren’t musicians but scenes from a Southeast Asian battlefield.

“While a war in Vietnam divided America, a revolution on television brought us all back together,” explains a narrator, who goes on to cite examples of the social and political upheaval of the late ’60s. “Through it all, one man served as the ultimate ambassador.”

That man, of course, was Cash, who brought both an uncommon sense of musical integrity and social consciousness to the weekly ABC show. By showcasing gifted artists who cut across generational and racial lines, Cash sought to use the cleansing power of music to help unify and heal the greatly divided nation.

“John approached the series with an absolute sense of mission,” says Lou Robin, the late singer’s longtime manager. Indeed, Cash made sure before agreeing to host the series that he would have the freedom to book musicians, regardless of musical genre — not just familiar, mainstream figures that ratings-happy network executives might favor.

And Cash tested that power by inviting Dylan to appear on the opening telecast.

While that move would seem a brilliant coup today, Dylan in 1969 was aligned with the youthful counterculture — meaning he might alienate older, conservative country music fans who presumably were the TV show’s target audience. Just six years earlier, CBS censors had prohibited Dylan from singing “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” on Ed Sullivan’s variety show.

ABC-TV executives weren’t apparently thrilled by Cash’s choice, but they gave him the green light, and Dylan, quite fittingly, is the opening performer on the new DVD. He does an acoustic version of the country-ish “I Threw It All Away” and then teams with Cash on “Girl From the North Country.”

While those and other clips have appeared on YouTube and in bootlegs, this is the first time the Cash show has been featured on an authorized home video, and it’s a triumphant slice American pop culture.

More than two dozen of the 65 performances were also shown in a recent PBS special, but with little of the cultural context that makes the DVD so notable. The set was produced and directed by Michael Borofsky.Johnny Cash

“The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show”

CMV/Columbia/Legacy

The back story: Kris Kristofferson, whose “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” was one of Cash’s signature hits, has long cited Cash a personal hero.

“John was an exciting and inspiring writer and performer who was committed to fighting for the underdog, the common guy. . . sort of like Woody Guthrie,” Kristofferson said by phone. “The same was true of the TV show. There were people arguing with him about things like the songs he should do and the lyrics he should use.

“I was there when someone objected to the words ‘wishing Lord that I was stoned’ in ‘Sunday Mornin’ and he thought it might offend someone or something. I said I was against cutting the line because it was the heart of the song, and John just listened to us both.”

Kristofferson, who narrates part of the new package, was sitting in the balcony the night of the show, not knowing if Cash was going to sing his song.

“I would have understood if for the sake of the show John had to sacrifice the song,” he said. “But he did sing it, and when he got to the line, he looked up at me where I was sitting in the balcony and sort of smiled. You can imagine how thrilled I was.”

The series consisted of 58 episodes, so this four-hour set includes only highlights, but the lineup is extraordinary. It includes several musicians who would eventually join Cash in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, including Creedence Clearwater Revival (performing “Bad Moon Rising”) and Neil Young (“The Needle and the Damage Done”), as well as others who would be honored with him in the Country Music Hall of Fame, including George Jones (“She Thinks I Still Care”) and Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man”).

The music: The Dylan performance may be the most celebrated moment in the DVD, but two of the most moving may well be Louis Armstrong’s teaming with Cash on a classic Jimmie Rodgers tune, “Blue Yodel No. 9,” and Cash’s rendition of “Man in Black.”

Rodgers, the father of modern country music and one of Cash’s biggest influences, recorded “Blue Yodel” with Armstrong on trumpet in 1930 in Hollywood — one of the first integrated recording sessions in country music. By celebrating that moment on the TV show, Cash wasn’t just saluting one of his heroes but subtly underscoring his message of unity and tolerance.

Later in the set, Cash chats with college students about the nation’s values, and he ends up debuting on the show a song he wrote to explain some of his own feelings.

The lyrics, in part, from “Man in Black”:

Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,

And things need changin’ everywhere you go.

But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,

You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

Nearly 40 years after Cash’s boldness in bringing together young and old, country, rock and R&B performers, “The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show” illuminates the liberating spirit of this invaluable American artist. He was never just a “star.”

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