How Did Johnny Make His Songs Ring True?
Hint: Guts. Second hint: Still guts.
“Go home and sin and come back with a song I can sell.” Sam Phillips
“You’ve got a song you’re singing from your gut,” Johnny Cash once said, “and you want that audience to feel it in their gut, too.” He spent a lot of years trying to connect this way. Some songs did it better than others, probably the most powerful being “Folsom Prison Blues.” It was the second of Cash’s songs recorded on Sun Records (the first was “Hey, Porter”).
Cash must have sung “Folsom Prison Blues” thousands of times during his career. He even sang it at Folsom Prison. When he got to the last line, “Then I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away,” the prisoners rose and clapped like crazy. “I wouldn’t say they were being polite,” Cash remarked afterwards. “Guys like that either feel something or they don’t.”
It was a good lesson for Cash. No amount of production, no singing style, replaces what someone feels when words ring true. Not that it comes easy. In the early days, Cash figured his faith was enough to move people. He sang gospel songs until Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, told him, “Go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.”
From there, he learned that guts — not faith — was what made a song believable and relatable.
Cash wasn’t sure what Phillips meant at the time, but “Folsom Prison Blues” was the result. From there, he learned that guts — not faith — was what made a song believable and relatable.
How our guts do this is pretty simple. Honesty comes with a certain amount of vulnerability. If you don’t have that, you’ll never open up enough to sound sincere. Any song — or any story — requires humanness. Since we’re human, it should come as second nature. Only we don’t follow what our hearts tell us. We decide to be somebody else instead.
By that I mean we don’t feel confident being us. We go back to other writers, seeing something we wish we’d written. Then we write in the same style, figuring their guts can be our guts.
It seems every writer starts this way — even the most famous ones. Jack Kerouac tried to be Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Wolfe tried to be Marcel Proust. Eventually one’s style comes out when we realize we can’t be someone else. We don’t know their emotions and they don’t know ours.
Having guts also doesn’t come without risk. As Ray Bradbury explained, “Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.” If you aren’t prepared for criticism, those wings don’t mean a damn thing. Neither is writing what you think people want to read.
You can’t build interest through formula. Eventually, you get found out.
Social media is full of tips and exposés, telling aspiring writers how to reach a broader audience. It might work for a time, then it won’t. You can’t build interest through formula. Eventually, you get found out.
“Who cares as long as I get the numbers?” you say. Well, you’ll care eventually. Your numbers will decline, people will see you for what you really are, then your career — if you want to call it a career — will dwindle.
Having said that, every artist, writer, or singer worries about audience. Even after hits like “Folsom Prison Blues,” Cash found himself trying one song after another, hoping to duplicate his early success.
Then, one day, in 1969, his wife June Carter suggested Johnny do a song called “A Boy Named Sue.” It was written by Shel Silverstein, cartoonist, artist and songwriter.
It seemed like a bit of a novelty song to Cash, so he decided to try it out, unrehearsed, at San Quentin. Relying on the lyric sheet, Cash half sang, half spoke the lyrics with the band following along. Somehow it worked. The San Quentin prisoners stood up, clapped and cheered.
A few years later, on his own show, Cash introduced Shel Silverstein, telling the audience “I got more record sales from Shel’s song than anything I’ve done before. I owe a lot to this guy.”
Silverstein was one of the bravest children’s book authors of all time. Nobody comes away from reading “The Giving Tree” without some emotional reaction.
So why was this song such a success? Essentially it was guts meeting guts. Silverstein was one of the bravest children’s book authors of all time. Nobody comes away from reading “The Giving Tree” without some emotional reaction. Combine Silverstein’s honesty with Cash’s half sung, half spoken delivery, and “A Boy Named Sue” was bound to be a hit.
We all want hits, but we forget — or ignore — what it takes to reach that level of recognition. We think of popularity instead. We play to the masses.
Meanwhile, the real awards go to people who didn’t compromise. They fight with editors, they fight with friends, all because what they write — the way they write — sounds like them.
For something to sound like you, it has to feel like you. By that I mean, it comes from your gut — not your brain.
Shel Silverstein told the story once of trying to get “The Giving Tree” published. Some editors felt it was “too sad for children” and “too simple for adults.” Even when Harper & Row picked it up, they still wanted changes both in the words and the illustrations. Finally, Ursula Nordstrom, the publisher, released the book in Silverstein’s original form.
Whether Nordstrom depended on Silverstein’s guts, or he relied on hers, the book sold millions of copies worldwide (still does).
Houston was known for being hard on screenwriters. Bradbury spent eight months in Ireland, writing and rewriting until he doubted every word.
Ray Bradbury remembered “an emotionally crippling” experience working with John Houston on “Moby Dick.” Houston was known for being hard on screenwriters. Bradbury spent eight months in Ireland, writing and rewriting until he doubted every word. Then one morning, he said, “I am Herman Melville,” and wrote the screen treatment in ten hours. Houston loved the result. “What happened?” he asked Bradbury, and Bradbury admitted he couldn’t just think like the author, he had to be the author.
I know this goes against what I said before. We can’t have real guts copying someone with real guts. Except Bradbury knew the difference between aspiring and conspiring. “Moby Dick” didn’t need an interpretation. It just needed to be told. What better way than through the author himself. When Bradbury handed Houston the script, he said, “Behold: Herman Melville,” and Houston knew he meant it.
We can’t all be Bradbury or Melville. That doesn’t mean we can’t be honest with ourselves. We can’t do that following the crowd. We also can’t find safety in numbers, forgetting the old saying that if everyone agrees on something, it’s usually wrong.
Any form of writing, whether it’s books, songs, corporate correspondence, or making a speech, is always a hair’s breadth from being a “bog of mediocrity”.
More importantly, it creates sameness. Social media is full of rehashed work. Hunter S. Thompson once wrote: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of mediocrity.”
Any form of writing, whether it’s books, songs, corporate correspondence, or making a speech, is always a hair’s breadth from being a “bog of mediocrity”. We have to stop being dullards, bums and word zombies.
We have to get back to having guts. Maybe throw in a little sin, too.
Robert Cormack is a satirist, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Robert’s other articles and stories at robercormack.net
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