. . . Johnny Cash

. . .

Mystery Train Bound for Gloryhole

My old pal Matt writes:

So, I've been listening on the radio to tributes to the late great Johnny Cash, and I've heard one, two, three different commentators refer to "I Walk the Line" as a statement of a commitment to sexual fidelity in the face of temptation, or somesuch (NPR times two and one jock on the local station).

This kinda smacks of some punk-ass rock critic's line that's been repeated over and over, unattributed.

But the interpretation was novel to me. I'd always assumed, since it's a well-known fact Johnny Cash sold his soul to the devil, that the song was intended as a sort of satanic gospel masquerading as a spiritual. After all, he doesn't "walk the line" because it's the right thing to do, or because it's easy. He does it "because you're mine".

In any event, the "you" in the song makes a LOT more sense if it's referring to either Jesus or Satan.

I mean...think context here for the hit halfway between "Folsom Prison" and "Ring of Fire".

The alternative theory I once proposed during a band bull session was that this was a prison song, from a lifer who was a bull's (or possibly just another prisoner's) punk. "Because you're mine, I walk the line" (walking the line being something prisoners are forced to do in prison, literally, following the white lines, putting their toes on the lines on the floor, etc.)

Again, another explanation that seems far more likely than a 'statement of commitment to sexual fidelity'.

What say you?

I say you got a point.

Or rather you got a respectable blunt instrument which you may be trying to whittle too pointy.

The dark engines of American pop music are fueled by Jesus, sex, and class. No redemption without backsliding, no rebirth without corruption, and when the smoke's at its BBQ-pit heaviest and the mind's boiled by spirits and sauces, praisin' the Lord and goin' to Hell or Texas become as one big mess.

Sam Phillips understood better than anyone the creation of such messes. Cash's pledge to be simultaneously true to "those who believe in me," to those who "depend on me," to "myself," and to "God" already bristled with conflict, and Phillips's fast tempo upped the ambiguity, perhaps irredeemably.

Stretching "the ends out for the tie that binds," does Cash resemble a child before a mother, a vagrant before a cop, a bachelor before the bride, a bride before the Christ, a sacrifice before the Devil?

Yes, just as the Ring of Fire (written by the woman he sinned with while married to the woman for whom he walked the line) sets us shaking in our boots with both fear and desire. To clarify would misrepresent.


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