'Forever Words' Offers Little-Known Look At Johnny Cash, The Poet

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Musician Johnny Cash in 1977. (AP)
Musician Johnny Cash in 1977. (AP)

It's hard to imagine Johnny Cash's music without the boom-chicka-boom-chicka of the guitar that's featured in those songs. But Cash's lyrics were also poetry. And in fact, thanks to a new book, we know that he also wrote poetry.

Here & Now's Robin Young talks about Cash's poetry with Princeton University professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, the editor of "Forever Words."

Interview Highlights

On concerns prior to publishing the collection

"One does not want to... sully — let's use a word like that — the memory, the reputation of Johnny Cash, which is, you know, pretty much unassailable. So we didn't want to be printing anything that we thought wasn't up to par."

On Cash's poem "California Poem"

There's trouble on the mountain, and the valley is full of smoke
There's crying on the mountain, and again, the same heart broke
The lights are on past midnight, the curtains closed all day
There's trouble on the mountain, the valley people say

"There's something about that, I mean it's not that it couldn't function as a song lyric, it absolutely could. But there's something in the nuance of 'the valley people say,' it's almost as if the... it forces us to put the stress on 'the valley people,' and one of the things that we simply cannot do, or at least it's very difficult to do when we're singing a song, is to stress one word over another. It's just one of those distinctions that actually is a clue as to how these two genres might indeed be different."

On the European influences in Cash's poetry, and his poem "The Dogs Are In The Woods"

"The great American song tradition stems substantially from the great song traditions of Ireland, England and Scotland. And indeed, the Cash family come from Scotland, and indeed they're mentioned as being associated with Dunfermline Town, and of course it was Dunfermline Town where the fabulous ballad 'Sir Patrick Spens' is set, the king sits in Dunfermline Town. And one of the things that I really love about Johnny Cash is the extent to which he's able to extend the ballad tradition, and there's one that I think is particularly representative of that, it's called 'The Dogs Are In the Woods.'

The dogs are in the woods, and the huntin's lookin' good
And the raccoons on the hill, I can hear them trailing still
But he's on the other side, and he'll find a place to hide
But the dogs'll hunt him down, and they'll catch him on the ground
But the fur is gonna fly, and a hound is gonna cry
And we may not know tonight, who will finally win the fight

"And, you know, that's an absolutely astonishing stanza, it seems to me, where we go from the, actually a cliche, 'the fur is gonna fly,' but one that's re-visited, one that's given a new lease of life. 'The fur is gonna fly,' it's a cliche because it's an accurate description of something that happens in the world of hunting, in this case, and 'we may not know tonight, who will finally win the fight,' and we can imagine Cash speaking that himself, in that extraordinary, resonant voice. And we can see that the poem, or the ballad there, has moved beyond itself — and its immediate concerns about a dog catching a raccoon — to something larger. But 'the dogs are in the woods, and the huntin's looking good, the fire is burning low, we wet it down and go.' Brilliant picture painting again... the painting of a scene, and he's really an adept in that."

More Poems From 'Forever Words'

The cover of "Forever Words," by Johnny Cash. (Courtesy Blue Rider Press)
The cover of "Forever Words," by Johnny Cash. (Courtesy Blue Rider Press)

By Johnny Cash

Body On Body


You wonder how (where) true love goes
No one can say—cause nobody knows
Like rain on a rock—like a leaf in the air
No way to tell but it’s going somewhere.

You wonder what—true love knows
No one can say—cause nobody knows
It don’t make sense—like a midnite sun
And one and one—is only one.

Heart on heart—and soul on soul
Body on body is how it goes
Heart on heart and soul on soul
Body on body—is all it knows.


Summer 2003

You tell me that I must perish
Like the flowers that I cherish
Nothing remaining of my name
Nothing remembered of my fame
But the trees that I planted
Still are young
The songs I sang
Will still be sung.

Let's Put It To Music


How do you feel about me
Now that you’ve learned to know me?
Why don’t we both admit
That something is happening.
And we would feel better if
We’d just tell each other
No need to keep it to ourselves.
Let’s put it to music
Let’s put it to music
Let’s sing about it
Laugh about it
Clap our hands
And shout about it
Let the whole world hear it
In a sweet, sweet melody
Let’s put it to music, you and me.

From FOREVER WORDS: The Unknown Poems by Johnny Cash, published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Foreword copyright © 2016 by John Carter Cash.

This segment aired on December 21, 2016.



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