There is no doubt that Johnny Cash believes the Law must be taken seriously. Many of his songs about prisoners and the condemned are conspicuous in the fact that their narrators or main characters take full responsibility for their crimes; some of them even die for those crimes. Sam Hall does so defiantly, while the narrator of “I Hung My Head” is stunned and terrified by the consequences of his actions, but both go to the gallows without protest all the same.
But Cash also espouses what might be called a liberal position on sin as social failure, too, without sensing any contradiction with his more “conservative” ideas about personal responsibility. In “Man in Black”, he expresses sympathy for and solidarity with “the prisoner who has long paid for his crimes, but is there because he’s a victim of the times.” The song that haunts me more than any other in his corpus is “Drive On”, which discusses the social alienation felt by Vietnam veterans returning to the United States — there’s little question that in singing this song, Cash is blaming American society for the reception those men received.
These two themes are woven throughout Cash’s performances. The interplay between these two sources of human evil permit him to feel solidarity not only with the wrongly-imprisoned, but with the voice of his famous “Folsom Prison Blues”, a convict who “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Cash reports in his autobiography that this struck him as one of the most depraved things one human being could do to another. It’s clear he holds this fictional presence responsible to the fullness of the Law and yet still regards him as a human being deserving the care and concern of other people.
As for me, if it were my last day on earth, Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” is the album I’d be playing over and over again.