David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 95: Johnny Cash (The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea)

July 30, 2020

If an artist is going to do a box set of CD's, I always hope they will do something different with it. Most box sets put on the artist's best-known songs, mixed in with some b-sides and live versions, and take in the money. Steely Dan basically just packaged all of their albums (up to that point) on 4 CD's, called the box set Citizen Steely Dan, and that was it.  For me, it was a handy way to get all their albums on CD's, except that Aja, for instance, got split over two CD's. I felt like I was buying 8-tracks again, although at least "Josie" didn't get chopped mid-chord with an earth-shattering ka-chunk.  

Then there's Johnny Cash who released simply the smartest box set ever, Love, God, Murder, each disc featuring songs about those three themes.  Some of his greatest hits aren't even included (no, "A Boy Named Sue" can't be found anywhere), and perhaps it was a risky venture. One hopes that the fan who loved Gospel Johnny wouldn't balk at having so much Rebel Johnny. (No one better begrudge Amorous Johnny!)

Me, I bought the set for the love and murder. Love has some of the finest songs he wrote with June Carter, and for June Carter, testaments to the deepest of romantic love. Murder, not surprisingly, contains some of the "prison" songs he became famous for, and which still spoke about love -- as forgiveness and empathy. To be honest, I didn't expect to find God with the set. Well, I did expect to find God-themed songs, but figured they would be a bunch of stereotypical gospel songs. In the end, I was sure I would play that CD the least. It never works out that way, does it?  In part, because God is mostly Agape and not simply a-gospel.

Cash could do the gospel, of course. God features an amazing version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," that rivals anybody else's, and I am driven to it almost anytime I hear any classic gospel tune, including "Amazing Grace," which is getting a lot of play time during this period of COVID & protest. What's inspiring is that God contains many songs presenting other cases for God, ones that aren't simply Biblical. Cash includes the best ones from his comeback album, American Recordings, which I had and loved: "Why Me Lord," "Oh, Bury Me Not," and "Redemption." God was a reminder that Johnny could sing straight from a phone book or the King James version of the Bible, and it would be haunting.

My favorite track from God is "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea," a rockabilly reminder of redemption. I had never heard the song before purchasing the box set; in fact it was years before I realized it came from his American Recordings II: Unchained, inexplicably the only one of the American Recordings' trio I don't own.  To find out that Cash on "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" was supported by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers was like a message from Heaven (I suspect Petty Cash is a stop on a tour of Heaven, watching both enjoy a blunt). On God, Cash's liner notes assert that the creator "likes a southern accent and He tolerates country music and quite a bit of quitar," but it isn't the guitars that lift The Kneeling Drunkard and his plea, it's that church organ. I don't know if Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, or Johnny Cash sideman, Rick DePiro, is responsible for that lovely deep church organ sound that opens the song, but I sure want it to be Tench at the bench. His keyboards were often the most overlooked part of Petty's brilliance. However, Tench is my drunken plea, not the song's drunkard's plea of focus, so yet again I have digressed.

The song memorably spins the tale of a drunken man too late to his mother's death bed and paying for the rest of his life (as relatively short as it is) through his guilt -- and almost certain additional besotted ways.  The song's narrator has wandered into a lonely, country churchyard cemetery to witness the kneeling drunkard plead, "Lord, have mercy on me." He staggered too late to his Momma's deathbed, lurched to her graveside, but eventually passes into the night in the grace of God reunited with his mother in Heaven.

There's a sense of irony that Cash, a man known for his demons, would be singing this song, but it all makes sense when you realize the song was written by June Carter Cash (and her sisters) when she was performing prior to meeting Johnny. Only a woman can offer the mercy our kneeling drunkard seeks. Only a woman with the heart of June Carter, if we believe the history of her relationship with Johnny, can find mercy for a man consumed by addiction. It might be more evidence that if there is a merciful God, she is a woman, able to see something redeemable in stumbling, stinking sots. There is hope for all of us.

"The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea." Johnny Cash. Love God Murder. Legacy. 2000. Link here.

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Day 96: Miracle Legion "The Backyard." ->

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