Johnny Cash’s ‘Unknown Poems’ Offer A Deeper Picture Of The Artist

Dec 12, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CRAIG HAVIGHURST)  --  The music of Johnny Cash was destined to live on long after the artist himself. Now, 13 years after Cash’s death, an effort to preserve and publish his non musical writing has taken shape. It’s a new book – with a black dust jacket of course - called Forever Words, The Unknown Poems.

“You tell me that I must perish.

Like the flowers that I cherish

nothing remaining of my name

Nothing remembered of my fame

But trees that I planted

Still are young

The songs I sang will still be sung”

Sitting in the Cash Cabin recording studio in Hendersonville, TN, John Carter Cash reads aloud one of the very last things his father ever wrote.

“He was at a point in his life where my mother had passed away. He was very destitute. He was alone,” Cash read.

Cash says among his father’s extensive papers was a folder where he’d collected notes to his late wife, June Carter Cash. Mostly he says, they were dark and forlorn.

“But within that folder in the heart of it was this poem,” Cash said. “That he had such vision to see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, while he was in that well of darkness is a testament to the human spirit.”

That may summarize as well as anything what John Carter was trying to convey as he helped curate the collection. We know the Man In Black as a songwriting icon, a powerful performer and a charismatic public figure. Here, in his first ever formal collection of poetry, we see a man wrestling deeply with life and faith. And in places we read a voice with a sense of humor, winking at the world and at fame.

“There is a cohesive message here. There is a statement from this man of great diversity and character. There is something to be said that he is relating about his life,” Cash said.

Helping the reader along the way is the collection’s editor Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and a professor at Oxford and now Princeton. He says in his introduction that as he read the large body of work that Cash’s son shared with him that, “It was with an initial sense of relief then and increasingly rapturous glee, that I realized there is so much here that will indeed broaden and deepen our perception of Johnny Cash and his legacy.”

“My father was a man of mystery in that he could stand on stage and sing ‘Cocaine Blues’ and have the crowd nearly at riot energy and then within a few minutes sing ‘Peace in the Valley’ and have them sitting beside him in the garden with the lion and the lamb. So he had this magic about him to where he could bring people together from different walks of life. And that’s all within these poems,” Cash said.

Some of them seem to have been songs in progress, and several artists – including Brad Paisley, Dailey & Vincent and Jamey Johnson have set some of the poems to music for future release.

On the page, these verses may not have that familiar railroad inspired rockabilly beat or that famous baritone voice, but there’s music in the words just the same.