The Random Griffith

Johnny Cash in heaven

Posted in Uncategorized by Jackson Griffith on 06/01/2010

Sometimes my sailor mouth can get me in hot water with a friend or two.

At any rate, I figure it might behoove me to repost the lyrics to this song I wrote recently, titled “Johnny Cash in Heaven,” because the original place on here where I posted it contained some profanity. And I wanted to feature it in a post that people could feel comfortable sending to their mama or dad, if they ever do such a thing; at any rate, I didn’t want my profanity to be any kind of stumbling block. No one wrote me anything indicating they were upset, so this is a preemptive move. As I wrote in the song’s lyrics: “Yes, I have a dark side, and sometimes it drags me down.” I do not set out to offend deliberately, but sometimes I can achieve that end without even trying.

Anyway, where I grew up, in California’s San Joaquin County, Johnny Cash was a pretty big deal. I thought it was pretty sweet that he cut live albums at Folsom Prison, which is about 30 miles east of where I’m writing this in downtown Sacramento, and at San Quentin, across the San Francisco (technically, San Pablo) Bay from my birthplace in Berkeley. At the time, I didn’t fully cognate the full measure of Mr. Cash’s coolness; he exuded the kind of tough guy vibe that people in my working-class social stratum, even us hippie boys, found desirable as a male role model. Later, it was his mix of toughness and sensitivity, plus his concern for people who weren’t all that fortunate, that struck me as a pretty decent combination. Especially his concern for people behind bars.

In March 1994 I got to interview Cash for a cover story that ran in Pulse, the Tower Records monthly magazine where I worked for 16 years. Cash’s album American Recordings was about to come out, and I went up to his room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas. It was an okay interview, but I’d hit a rough spot of depression at about 18 months of sobriety, and I remember feeling pretty worthless during an event that should have been a high point. That night, all was forgiven, and Cash put on a killer show in the courtyard of a club called Emo’s on Austin’s Sixth Street, still perhaps the best show I’ve ever seen anyone do.

And even though I felt kinda down talking to Cash, one of the cool parts was him acknowledging his familiarity with this area, not only Folsom Prison but Sacramento and Lodi, near where I grew up. If I recall correctly, A.P. Carter, who would be his great uncle or something, lived in the area. Don’t quote me on that, because I no longer have the tape or my notes.

In 2008 I was part of a Buddhist sangha, or group, that goes into Old Folsom Prison to teach and practice meditation with a sangha of inmates there. We would meet on Tuesday nights in Greystone Chapel, a granite building Cash sang a song about on his 1968 album At Folsom Prison that was written by Glen Sherley, an inmate there; to get to the chapel, we would have to walk through the prison, including the dining hall where Cash’s album was recorded in January 1968, and across the prison yard.

Each time I walked through the prison and across the yard, which was probably every Tuesday that summer where the prison wasn’t on lockdown, I’d think about Johnny Cash, and how he was willing to donate his time and talent to affirm the value of men who have been thrown away by society. Just because somebody may have done awful things and has gotten himself (or herself) locked away, that person is still a human being. Call me a bleeding-heart liberal, but I think everyone has a Buddha nature.

And even though my own religious and philosophal views may be grounded in Buddhist thought, I have no problem with Mr. Cash’s professed Christianity. I myself was raised in the Presbyterian Church, and a couple of my beloved cousins are Presbyterian ministers, and my sister was a missionary in Papua New Guinea for around 30 years. We all find our way, and anything that gets us to stop being so damn self-involved and more directed toward getting outside ourselves and helping our fellow human beings, especially those who need that help, is a good thing in my book.

At any rate, that may have been what came to mind this past fall. I’ve walked through my own version of the Bible’s book of Job in the past few years, and I really was skidding pretty hard a few months ago. One morning I was sitting on my zafu, or meditation cushion, with my eyes closed, and I hit a deep well of sadness and tears, and heard the phrase “Johnny Cash in heaven.” That was it; and later that day I returned, sat down with the guitar and wrote the following song:

Johnny Cash in heaven, I think you understand
When this whole world comes tumbling down, what happens to a man
Who’s been chewed up hard by circumstances beyond his control
And fears for losing everything, even his soul
Wandering in darkness crying, nothing left to lose
Singing these sad, sad blues
Johnny Cash in heaven

Johnny Cash in heaven, tell me what you know
’Cause I ain’t worked in so long, and got nowhere to go
And every day I hit a new bottom, can’t move on up
I’m wrestling with some demons that got me all messed up
But when I listen to your records, they bring me peace
Find some peace for me now
Johnny Cash in heaven

Ain’t stuck in Folsom Prison, just a lonesome vale of tears
Paralyzed by hatred for myself and gripped with fear
I met a woman, fell in love and opened up my heart
And then one day she said goodbye and my world fell apart
I feel like a stranger in a once-familiar place
Spinning hard into space
Johnny Cash in heaven

I know you ain’t Jesus, though you might be a saint
’Cause you walked through adversity, and you stood tall through pain
And I know you once walked this way, tell me where to go
I’ll put one foot in front of the other, never felt so low
But I’ve got faith there’s someplace better, show me a sign
And I will walk the line
Johnny Cash in heaven

Johnny Cash in heaven, I think you know me well
I’m simple but I’m complicated, inside this shell
And yes, I’ve got a dark side, sometimes it drags me down
And I can feel that river rising, think I’m gonna drown
But I know you stood where I stand now, on a cold, dark night
And it’s gonna be all right
Johnny Cash in heaven
Johnny Cash in heaven
Johnny Cash in heaven
Johnny Cash in heaven

If there’s one thing I hope about it, it’s this: Perhaps one day I will be able to use my music to help other people, and maybe this song and some of my other ones can make some money that can be put to use helping those who might need the help. Lord knows I’ve been the beneficiary of other peoples’ kindnesses, especially when things went sideways in recent years. And I’d really like the chance to pay them back, and then pay something forward.

Sincerely, I would. —Jackson Griffith


3 Responses

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  1. Diane Wilde said, on 06/01/2010 at 13:20

    Jackson, just got back from a Tuesday night at Folsom. Two of the men requested a Refuge Ceremony as they are to be released in a few weeks and have made Buddhadharma their path. Lifers both of them… and I think you may know who they are. Another man who you know is also being released in about a month. The old sangha is leaving… with lots of hope and much more compassion. New men are arriving. And so it goes.

  2. jaxong said, on 06/01/2010 at 14:08

    Thanks, Diane. I really appreciate the update. That sangha and my participation in it affected me deeply and profoundly. And one day soon, I hope, when my life is better grounded, I can resume my contributions there. I miss those guys, along with how much going out there benefited the other parts of my daily practice.

  3. elle wrathall said, on 06/01/2010 at 22:24

    gramma & i love this (& loved the “ted” blog too). salt’s a necessary ingredient for great writing. flavors it, to be sure, but also establishes more connection with a reader, as anyone who has tasted his or her tears can relate. so don’t shy from it too much…but yeah, too much ain’t good neither

    your combo of salt/lyricism (or song, i guess) is great, jackson, & i too can relate to the struggle to find the balance of the two. you’re more fearless in your self-expression than i am. i admire that

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