ON MUSIC AND SUFFERING:
Within the Darkest of Times Can Lie Beauty and Heroism
Two months ago we noted that Washington DC area singer and recording artist Grace Griffith, a long-time fixture in the DC-MD-VA folk & Celtic music scene, had begun to experience debilitating advanced stages of Parkinson’s Disease and that she was determined to keep making music in the face of it –and to keep mentoring up-and-coming young artists, such as the late Eva Cassidy, whom Griffith almost single-handedly launched to international stardom despite her awareness of the cost to her own career.
On another note of heroism on the part of another artist, we found in this month’s edition of First Things a particularly moving and thoughtful piece written by theology professor Peter M. Chandler, Jr., a tribute to the late singer Johnny Cash, who died three months ago at age 71 after several years of declining health.
Chandler focuses on how Cash used the suffering in his own life, up to and including his impending death, to grow as an artist and thereby leave behind a body of some of the most remarkable and remarkably original music in modern history. This was only possible, notes Chandler, because in his music Cash both embraced and revealed his own soul, drawing no distinction between himself as a man and himself as an artist:
…Johnny was the kind of person who could simultaneously hold in tension the conflicting parts of his personality and communicate to those who are alienated by a deeply counterfeit culture —particularly a counterfeit Christianity. …We seem to prefer the smile that conceals an inner deception to the honest purgative truth about ourselves. But with Johnny it was otherwise.
That’s because he lived, sang, and played truthfully. There was in him no hint of fraud. At a time when he could have resurrected his career by riding the coattails of others’ popularity (as is the trend today), Johnny did the reverse. On 1994’s American Recordings (on the cover he stands in a field wearing a long black preacher’s coat, alone except for two dogs), he did not simply return to the “old” Johnny Cash and commodify himself for a younger audience. …in a world full of fakes, Cash was authentic.
…[I]n a culture that by and large loves death but does not know what to do with it —a culture simultaneously repulsed and attracted by it— Johnny’s confrontation with his own imminent demise was largely misunderstood. The critics who complained that his voice was not what it used to be missed the point entirely. It is precisely because his voice was not what it used to be that the songs have such power. The beauty of the record lies in that very frailty, the tremolo in his voice that became more pronounced with each album. Even in his younger days, the inimitable strength and fortitude in his voice was mixed with the occasional moment of weakness, the odd quaver and show of vulnerability. In the last few years those moments became more frequent, and his voice became more diaphonous, disclosing more of the effects of illness.
Yet for that very reason, Cash’s voice was all the more beautiful —it had a weakness stronger than others’ strengths….