Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity

Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity

Leigh H. Edwards
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 02/25/2009
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-253-22061-5
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Throughout his career, Johnny Cash has been depicted—and has depicted himself—as a walking contradiction: social protestor and establishment patriot, drugged wildman and devout Christian crusader, rebel outlaw hillbilly thug and elder statesman. Leigh H. Edwards explores the allure of this paradoxical image and its cultural significance. She argues that Cash embodies irresolvable contradictions of American identity that reflect foundational issues in the American experience, such as the tensions between freedom and patriotism, individual rights and nationalism, the sacred and the profane. She illustrates how this model of ambivalence is a vital paradigm for American popular music, and for American identity in general. Making use of sources such as Cash's autobiographies, lyrics, music, liner notes, and interviews, Edwards pays equal attention to depictions of Cash by others, such as Vivian Cash's publication of his letters to her, documentaries and music journalism about him, Walk the Line, and fan club materials found in the archives at the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, to create a full portrait of Cash and his significance as a cultural icon.

Author Bio

Leigh H. Edwards is Associate Professor of English at Florida State University. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida.


“Depicted as a social protestor and establishment patriot, a drugged wildman and devout Christian crusader, a rebel outlaw hillbilly thug and elder statesman, Johnny Cash was truly a walking contradiction. Through autobiographies, lyrics, music, liner notes, and interviews, along with public depictions, Edwards creates a complete, albeit fragmented, portrait of the Grammy-Award winning songwriter.”

“Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity is a tour de force of scholarship, analysis, and insight into the myth and meaning of The Man in Black. Given the relative paucity of academic investigation of Cash, the label 'definitive' carries a heavy burden. However, Leigh Edwards’ book will stand as the go-to source for understanding Cash’s transformation from popular singer to popular culture icon well into the foreseeable future. Displaying deft research skills, Edwards weaves numerous sources into a lucid account of Cash’s many roles, pulled together in an eminently readable account that will delight the singer’s millions of fans, as well as the growing scholarship on country music and its significance in American popular culture.”
 — Bob Batchelor, Editor of Literary Cash: Unauthorized Writings Inspired by the Legendary Johnny Cash

“Leigh Edwards authoritatively illustrates the many hues that made up the far from monochromatic personality of the Man in Black. She engages passionately with Johnny Cash’s complexities and never allows her affection for the performer to plough under the conflicting impulses that generated the singer’s sometimes baffling but always commanding body of music. ”
 — Dave Sanjek, University of Salford

“The Man in Black embodied many of the contradictions that dot the American landscape. In this bold new study, Leigh Edwards explains how time, place, talent, and manhood made his legend.”
 — Toby Miller, author of Makeover Nation: The United States of Reinvention

“Edwards' exploration . . . is nothing short of fascinating. The book provides in-depth analyses and challenges readers to think critically about 'Johnny Cash' (as well as Johnny Cash), a symbol that has been extremely important and influential in pop culture, but one that has not been widely written about as such.May 27, 2009”
 — Jason Buel, PopMatters

“[T]his volume is an important contribution to the theoretical literature connecting country music with the American character. . . . Recommended.August 2009”
 — Choice

“Johnny Cash . . . is a captivating, deeply analytical . . . portrait of the paradox of American identity and Johnny Cash. Edwards illustrated how the model of ambivalence is a vital paradigm for American popular music and American identity in general. June 19, 2009”

“In Edwards's hands, Johnny Cash . . . is transformed into a mirror through which we can examine southern, working-class identity. What emerges is a reflective portrait of our own contradictions. . . . This book richly deserves exploration, less for what it can teach its readers about Johnny Cash than for what it invites its readers to contemplate about themselves. ”
 — Southern Cultures

“Leigh H. Edwards's Johnny Cash the Paradox of American Identity offers a wideranging study of a compelling figure in American popular culture, and will be of interest to both fans of Johnny Cash and scholars in the fields of popular music studies, gender studies, and American studies....  Edwards aims to show that Cash's long and multifaceted career exists along the fault line of 'key foundational contradictions in American thought'. . . . It says much of both Cash's career and Edwards's skill as a writer that Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity manages to deliver on that ambitious premise. ”
 — Journal of American Studies

“One book representing the new wave of country music studies is Leigh H. Edwards’s Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity. Edwards takes an American icon of country music and places him solidly in the field of American cultural history, dealing with such timeless subjects as class, masculinity, and religion. Keenly engaged in interdisciplinary work, Edwards is speaking to a wide range of scholars, and cultural historians have much to learn from this approach. Of particular interest is her discussion of audiences – long a difficult subject for scholars of all stripes to write about effectively – and how those audiences have responded to Cash’s very American persona....  In short, Cash makes for an intriguing subject of analysis, and Edwards’s nuanced treatment reveals the work of a practiced cultural historian. ”
 — History Compass

“Edwards’ astute study reveals how Cash transcended the role of singer/musician and transformed into an iconic representation of America itself, full of contradictions, bluster, and large-than-life imagery.June 2010”
 — The Journal of American Culture

“This is a fascinating book, one of very few in the immense outpouring of ink on Cash to take a fully analytical stance toward his work . . . and certainly the most comprehensive and cohesive. Covering fifty years' worth of texts by an artist as prolific as Cash is an ambitious project, particularly if one hopes, as Edwards does, to read them in socio-historical context. She does a remarkable job of placing Cash in larger American studies and media studies frameworks . . . ”
 — Journal of Popular Music Studies

“Edwards's Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity is an exemplary study, setting a new standard for popular music scholarship that calls for a fundamental reassessment of the common tropes of country music and country music scholarship. December 2010”
 — Notes

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Cash as Contradiction
1. "What Is Truth?" Authenticity and Persona
2. "A Boy Named Sue": American Manhood
3. Gender and "The Beast in Me": Ramblers and Rockabillies
4. Race and Identity Politics
5. Man in Black: Class and National Mythologies
6. The Gospel Road: Cash as Saint and Sinner
Conclusion: "God's Gonna Cut You Down": Cultural Legacies
Works Cited

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