I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Living on the hopeless hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner
Who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he's a victim of the times
I wear it for the sick and lonely old
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold
I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men
(From The man in black, 1971)
Johnny Cash was great not just for his songwriting, performing and humanitarian outlook. He was great because he although he embodied the features of American country music he managed to rise above them all.
He was a patriotic country boy who denounced the Vietnam war. He was from poor white Arkansas farming stock, but he campaigned for civil rights, particularly those of native Americans. (Contrary to myth he had no native American blood.) His voice is one of unyielding masculinity, but he used to portray a vulnerability and sensitivity that is the opposite of testosterone fueled rock and roll.
In the 60s he mixed and recorded with both the then radical Bob Dylan and the right-wing evangalist Billy Graham, but followed neither into the Republican political camp.
Cash's songs were rooted in who he was. His family resettled in Arkansas as sharecroppers under Roosevelt's welfare programme, the "New Deal". His songs of rural white southern poverty were not the usual confection of the country music industry.
But by the time Cash started in the business country music was in crisis. Country had started out as hard-driving music, where electric instruments were cranked up against the noise of bar brawls. It was the music of Hank Williams, music that has more in common with the rock and roll which was to to displace country. Nashville turned to churning out bland easy listening records. Cash's work generally retained the hard edge of the early period, despite a few lapses into Nashville sentimental slush.
Cash's work focused on the plight of the underdog. His second single, Fulsom Prison Blues, was about a convicted murderer reflecting on his crime. It is interesting because it does not judge, rather holds open the possibility of redemption. This was not affectation by Cash.
Although it is another myth that he spent any time in prison, he knew well the poverty that bred crime. From 1958 Cash started to regularly play concerts to prison inmates - to show them, he explained, that someone cared, in the hope that this would lighten their load and perhaps help them refind a place in society.
Through the 60s Cash became an increasingly mainstream figure in country music, yet remained the outsider - the Man in Black.
When he was arrested on drugs charges and was banned from the Grand Ole Opry his outsider status was confirmed. When Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and others broke form the saccharine culture of Nashville to also become self-styled "outlaws", it helped Cash hold out against the studio's insistence on cheesy backing vocals and retain the harder edge in his music. The result was his two greatest albums, 1968's live album from San Quentin Prison and 1969's live album recorded in Fulsom prison.
For many years Cash avoided bigger political issues. His immediate response to the escalation of the war in Vietnam was to play for the troops. The experience however consolidated his opposition.
At a Madison Square Garden gig in December 1969, with Cash at the height of commercial popularity and after singing Remember the Alamo, Cash gave one of his clearest anti-war statements. "Perhaps I'm not a hawk", he told the crowd, "maybe I'm a hawk with claws". And he went on to sing the Ed McCurdy song, Last night I had the strangest dream.
"Last night I had the strangest dream
I'd never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war."
By the end of the 1970s Cash's star seemed to be fading. He was increasingly uninterested in the whole music business and uncommitted to his new recordings. In the 1980s Columbia, his record label of 25 years, dropped him. He had difficulty finding a new deal.
But Cash had a swansong when the rap-metal producer Rick Rubin signed him up in 1993 for an acoustic album that led to the four American Recordings albums. The work, a mixture of old and new Cash material, along with an eclectic collection of interpretations of other people's songs, is among Cash's best.
Stripped of all sentimentality, these are works of quite brutal honesty, the minimal arrangements leaving the singer exposed but sounding defiant. They were a fitting coda to a singer and songwriter of great humanity and integrity.
"Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black."