Album Review: Songs of Our Soil – Johnny Cash

Posted: January 29, 2013 in 1950's, 5/5, Country, Johnny Cash, Uncategorized
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songsofoursoilSongs of Our Soil seems to prove the theory that Cash was holding back his good material from Sam Phillips during the end of his tenure at Sun Records.  His third release for Columbia, still less than a year since the first, Songs demonstrates that Cash’s creativity really was stifled over at Sun.  While he wrote those great songs and crafted his signature sound over at Sun, Columbia gave him the opportunity to explore his whims and fancies with little restraint.

While Fabulous fit nicely into the Sun sound, except with added drums, Hymns was the gospel album Sam forbade.  Now on Songs of Our Soil, Cash strikes out into an entirely new vein – the concept album.  In twelve tightly crafted songs, Cash evokes a passing rural America.  Five songs clock in under two minutes, and six are originals written by Johnny, and two more are his revisions of traditionals (Clementine/Oh My Darling Clementine and Drink To Me/Drink To Me With Only Thine Eyes).

As many have noted, the album is filled with death.  His mother dies (Don’t Step on Mother’s Roses), his father dies (again, Roses), his grandfather dies (Grandfather’s Clock), a native warrior threatens murder (Old Apache Squaw), a carousing miner is murdered behind a saloon on the eve of his wedding (Clementine), three prospectors thirst to death in the desert (Hank and Joe and Me), a cemetery caretaker ponders his forthcoming lonely death (The Caretaker), and it’s all rounded with a meditation on the return of Christ (The Great Speckled Bird).  Other songs offer little cheeriness.  The farm gets flooded (Five Feet High and Rising), the family ponders asking the rich man in town for help as they starve (The Man on the Hill), and a sailor gets homesick (I Want to Go Home).

Despite the dour subject matter, the music throughout is upbeat.  Fans of the Sun sound will really enjoy this one.  Where they’re added, the drums are light, letting Luther’s Boom-Chicka-Boom picking carry the rhythm along.  Johnny’s acoustic guitar strums along throughout, most notably on Don’t Step on Mother’s Roses, where Luther steps out with some Hawaiian-esque lead guitar.

The contrast between the dark lyrics and the shuffling music belies Johnny’s character.  This album speaks of two worlds: the reality of life in the rural south he grew up in and the lore of the West that filled his imagination as a child on the farm.  That life was full of struggle, with poverty and natural disaster always looming at the door, threatening to take everything a hard working family had worked for.  Most things of value were a tribute to a lost loved one, be they a rose bush over mother’s grave, or a glorious clock memorializing grandfather.  And yet for those who ventured beyond the farm, the land of opportunity often resulted in tragedy.

Despite having grown up in such a world of toil, Cash was ever hopeful.  The landmarks of the album attest to as much: it opens with a hopeful love song (Drink to Me), closes the first side with a hopeful look towards redemption in Christ’s return, and then finally resolves the album with It Could Be You (Instead of Him), a plea for compassion towards one’s fellow man:

Befriend each stranger in the night help to make his burden light

Lift up the fallen ones and be a friend

Shed a tear share a sigh share his fears don’t pass him by

But for the grace of God it could be you instead of him

It is this code of charity that kept people alive in such a difficult world.

In a modern world, it can be hard to identify with the context of Cash’s songs, and yet all of these threats still loom.  In the past two months, New York City and Montreal have flooded.  We’re still living in war.  Many have lost their houses in recent years.  And when we face challenges, the same hope remains: the hope of love, the hope of a benevolent God, and the hope of goodwill from others when we’re in need.  To this end, Songs of Our Soil is a timeless success.


Other songs from the era:

  • I Got Stripes – This was the single, featuring Five Feet High and Rising.  This track would contribute to Johnny’s bad-boy image, offering a light-hearted take on prison life.  It’s a classic upbeat number (faster than anything on the Songs LP) that would feature regularly in Cash’s live set.  It can be found on the Legacy edition of Songs of Our Soil.
  • Wo Ist Zuhause Mama/Viel Zu Spat – On Oct. 25, 1959, Johnny recorded German versions of How High’s the Water Mama and I Got Stripes, linking Johnny to his days as a soldier deployed to Germany in the early 50s.  Purely interesting as a novelty item.  The backing vocals in Wo Ist Zuhause are particularly amusing.  Available on several different Bear Family releases.
  • Heartbeat/Relief is Just a Swallow Away/Hello Again – These tunes have popped up again on some of the Bear Family releases.  Apparently, Johnny’s nephew Roy Cash Jr. was trying to get a start as a country singer under the name of Roy Rivers.  Johnny was kind enough to open the studio to him and these are three recordings that have surfaced.  Johnny isn’t heard on any of these, and the sound is different from Cash’s own sound, so I’m doubtful if the Tennessee Two are on here either.  Instead it’s booming drums, jaunty steel guitar, and bouncy piano typical of the era.  Roy’s voice isn’t half bad, though!

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