Published: June 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
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.