The Power of Music
The Man in Black
Grandparents are an oft-forgotten yet critical part of the development of any child lucky enough to grow up with them. I certainly count myself in that number with all of my grandparents, but one really stands out; my maternal grandfather, or Papa as I call him.
Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of tinkering around with him in his basement, experimenting with hammers, scrap wood, drills, saws, and whatever other dangerous objects we could get our hands on. We would spend hours down there, talking about cars, life, and whatever aimless project the two of us happened to be working on. The tinkering was in many ways just something to keep our hands busy while he dispensed advice and anecdotes from his colorful and storied past on every topic he could think of. This veritable torrent of wisdom was only matched by my 8-year-old mind’s neverending tsunami of questions, all of which he patiently and kindly answered. I value that time immeasurably, and consider what I learned from him manually and mentally one of the basic building blocks of who I am. Slowly, he’s grown infirm and much quicker to tire, and our last session in the basement was years ago. It pains me to say this, but my time with him has always been limited; I’m happy to have had such character-defining moments with him.
However, it wasn’t just the two of us down there; our near-ubiquitous companion was the music of the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash. His rumbling baritone, reminiscent of days gone by, was constantly being piped from an ancient iPod through dusty beat-up speakers, Marshall Grant’s bass echoing off the concrete walls. And, despite all the talking and building and learning, I found time to listen to Cash’s lyrics, so much so that even years later I can sing almost all of his songs verbatim. And, God almighty, what lyrics they were! In my opinion, Johnny Cash was the greatest lyricist of the 20th Century. Just read this excerpt from Sunday Morning Coming Down, 1970:
“Then I headed back for home
And somewhere far away
A lonely bell was ringing
And it echoed thru the canyon
Like the disappearing dreams of yesterday”
Or from Man in Black, 1971:
“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.”
The effect that has on an impressionable young boy cannot be measured. My passion for politics and history come in large part from my grandfather and Johnny Cash, the two men as inseparably linked in my mind as the Sun and Moon. I consider, on a regular basis, “What would Cash do?”, wondering what he would think of today’s world. And, always, always, I try to do what he would have done.
When I am old and tired, my mind fogged by the miasma of stacked decades, I will most likely not remember whichever of my classmates is reading this. However, I know I will remember what his music taught me. And when I drift off into the great dark forever, the old man and the Man in Black will be waiting for me on the other side, ready to tinker in the basement one last time.