UT Professor Walks a Philosophical Line with Johnny Cash

Published: Jun 29, 2009
When Steven Geisz listens closely to Johnny Cash performing ”Folsom Prison Blues,” the song’s freight-train beat isn’t the only pattern he finds.

In much of his music, Cash presented himself as an outsider, said Geisz, a UT assistant professor of philosophy, but the drifter’s voice belonged to a well-connected performer.

“Johnny Cash himself is this mega-star, this cultural icon who is about as much of an insider as one can get,” he said.

The pairs of opposites in the “Man in Black’s” persona didn’t stop there. Geisz, who specializes in classical Chinese philosophy, wondered if the outlaw singer’s mystique could guide a larger discussion of East Asian thought – especially on the puzzling, if familiar, notions of duality and a dao.

With Cash’s recordings turned up, Geisz refined the connection. More contradictory couplings – including sons and fathers, laughter and pain, sin and redemption, the freedom of the road and the weight of one’s past – began to unfold.

In his recently published article, “The Dao and Duality of Johnny Cash,” Geisz maps the iconic singer’s person – and personal path – against a backdrop of classical Chinese philosophy.

“The lightness in the darkness and the laughter in the suffering form an Americana version of the unity of opposites … His songs have their own mysterious, complementary pairs,” Geisz wrote in the article.

Geisz presents the Dao – or Way – of Cash as a wide highway, where starts, stops and even U-turns are allowed.

“For most of Cash’s characters, the self … falls off the straight and narrow more often than it would like. But the self finds its way back to the Way,” Geisz wrote.

This Way – or Dao – is a metaphor for reality itself, said Geisz. “It’s a conception of living a life that involves some sort of movement.”

Introducing Daoist and Confucian philosophers to a conversation about Johnny Cash can help us understand how East Asian traditions might be relevant to our lives, said Geisz.

“It’s at the intersection of serious philosophy and pop culture,” he added. “I think it’s really important to cross that boundary in a respectable but fun way.”

Geisz analyzed the lyrics from many of Cash’s most noted recordings, including “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Jackson.” His article is part of a larger edited volume, Johnny Cash and Philosophy: The Burning Ring of Truth.

While a graduate student in the late 1990s, Geisz was a disc jockey at WXDU 88.7 FM Duke University Radio. He broadcast alt-country tracks as the punk-meets-folk rock movement found its footing on American college campuses.

“It seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that there are all kinds of interesting and fun questions that arise when you listen to that kind of music. Maybe those questions are philosophical,” Geisz said.

And if you listen with the right kind of ear, he added, you can find connections.