Home of the Blues: What Johnny Cash's lyrics show us

Updated: May 21, 2020

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

February is a month of many important days — for the romantics, there’s Valentines Day coming up just round the corner. For fans of American football, there was the Superbowl.

And for fans of country music (or even just Music in general), there’s Johnny Cash’s birthday at the end of the month.

In our team at Quilt.AI, we’ve got quite a few Johnny Cash fans, of varying ages and backgrounds. This inspired a piece on Cash: How might we describe Johnny Cash’s particular brand of country music?

For the uninitiated, Johnny Cash made music that was neither 100% country, rockabilly, or pop, but yet somehow made the charts of all these genres. His trademarks were his baritone voice and boom-chuck rhythm guitar playing style consisting of alternating bass notes. Musicologists out there would contest his country-ness — his was not the glossier Nashville ‘country-pop’ sound with smooth guitar and vocals.

Characteristic of country music, his songs were elaborate narratives and had strong use of characterisation — think of songs like A Boy Named Sue or The Ballad of Ira Hayes, with a clearly defined protagonist figure.

The Outlaw Identity: Country Music’s Man In Black

However, uncharacteristically, Cash skipped the embellished cowboy boots and elaborate denim jackets and shirts of male country singers, opting instead to don black clothes — which earned him the nickname of ‘Man in Black’.

This choice of dark clothes functioned as a physical sign to audiences and music commentators. It stood as an indicator of his outlaw image, a symbol of defiance against the social conventions of country musicians, and his marked choice to live apart from that identity.

Cash further established this outlaw identity through choosing unconventional sites of performance for a country musician. The choice of audience and setting as far removed from the aesthetics of the Grand Ole Opry — that of boisterousness and All-American merrymaking, put him in stark contrast to other country greats of that era.

He played frequently in prisons, visiting prisoners and throwing concerts for them, and then recording the famed ‘At Folsom Prison’ album when he played at that prison.

The Language of Johnny Cash

Song lyrics in country music often signify multiple things. They stand for creating and reinforcing the quintessential American identity; they stand for celebrating good values; and they almost always nostalgically recall simpler or earlier days and wholesome country living.

Cash’s lyrics touch on these topics, but also have an added facet of grimness and the grotesque. Lyrics like “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” are brutal and morbid, and juxtaposed against the fast, cheerful sounding melody, positions the man in black as firmly a country musician, but at the same time, not.

Given the country genre’s strong roots in folk culture and oral traditions, we naturally gravitated towards humanities disciplines such as cultural studies, semiotics and literary criticism as lenses to examine Cash’s lyrics.

Selecting some of his more popular songs recorded between 1955 and 2002, we ran them through our Cultural AI.

Here’s what we found:

Heavier, darker emotions were more prominent.

We found that Cash’s songs tended towards negativity. Top emotions detected in his lyrics were that of fear and anger. ‘Sadness’, a gentler negative emotion, was detected to be one of the lower ranked emotions in his lyrics.

For example in the song “Cry, Cry, Cry”, we see Johnny Cash’s anger, as his persona in the song wears the hat of the spiteful, bitter angry ex-lover, huffily singing:

Soon your sugar-daddies will all be gone.

You’ll wake up some cold day and find you’re alone.

You’ll call to me but I’m gonna tell you: “Bye, bye, bye”

Far from the more common tropes of the sad, pining lover or the troubadour in country songs about love, Cash presents a different kind of lover- not crooning, but snarling, and even ugly.

Personality-wise, Cash’s lyrics reveal a compassionate and bashful nature.

Running the lyrics through our personality model, we found that the top two macro categories Cash’s lyrics fell under were ‘Agreeableness’ and ‘Conscientiousness’. On the micro level within these categories, the top sentiments in his texts were that of ‘Sympathy’ and ‘Self-efficacy’ respectively.

Sympathy, denoting sensitivity to others and an understanding of their experiences, and Self-efficacy, denoting humility and unpretentiousness, soften the harshness of his lyrics.

And maybe it’s these personality traits that mellow his songs out, making them palpable to a wide audience of country music lovers and non-country fans alike. They nuance the emotional harshness of his lyrics, in a way that makes the Man in Black outlaw passably commercial.

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