Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music

John­ny Cash once called 1968 the hap­pi­est year of his life. It was the year his mas­ter­piece At Fol­som Prison came out, the year he was named the Coun­try Music Asso­ci­a­tion’s Enter­tain­er of the Year, and the year he mar­ried the love of his life, June Carter. So it was a for­tu­nate time for a young film­mak­er named Robert Elf­strom to meet up with Cash for the mak­ing of a doc­u­men­tary.

Elf­strom trav­eled with Cash for sev­er­al months in late 1968 and ear­ly 1969. The result­ing film, John­ny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music, is a reveal­ing look at Cash, his cre­ative process and his ties to fam­i­ly. Elf­strom fol­lowed along on a tour that took Cash and his group (includ­ing, at dif­fer­ent times, Chet Atkins and the Carter Fam­i­ly singers) to a wide range of places, includ­ing a prison, an Indi­an reser­va­tion and Cash’s own native soil in the Amer­i­can South. Cash and Carter vis­it his par­ents and oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers, and in one mov­ing scene Cash returns to his aban­doned child­hood home in Dyess, Arkansas, a cot­ton farm­ing town that was cre­at­ed under Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s New Deal pro­gram in the 1930s to give poor fam­i­lies a chance to start over.

The film gives some sense of the com­plex­i­ty of Cash’s per­son­al­i­ty. There is one scene near the begin­ning, for exam­ple, in which Cash goes hunt­ing and wounds a crow. He then cra­dles the injured bird in his hands and talks friend­ly to it. “That scene, to me, says a lot about who John­ny Cash is,” Elf­strom told PBS in a 2008 inter­view. “John was not always warm and fuzzy like a pan­da bear all the time. He’s like that part of the time, but he also has a sharp edge and stee­li­ness to him.” Elf­strom went on to describe the sit­u­a­tion:

One day, we were hang­ing out in his house, and he said, “I want to go hunt­ing.” He grabbed his shot­gun and was walk­ing through the land around his house when he spied a crow and whipped off a shot. John was a dead shot, so he wound­ed the crow, and the bird hit the ground. When he picked up the crow, you could feel that some­thing was going through John’s head; he’d almost killed some­thing that maybe he should­n’t have, and he felt bad­ly about it, but that instinct to hunt and wound was a part of him too. So John car­ried the crow and sat down in the shade, and I could see he was kind of pissed off at him­self. I kept some dis­tance from him, and the next thing I knew, he was writ­ing a song to the crow.

One of the most strik­ing things about Elf­strom’s film is the way it man­ages, despite the con­straints of the ciné­ma vérité form, to con­nect the events of Cash’s life to his music. For exam­ple, at one point Cash is walk­ing through the bar­ren vil­lage of Wound­ed Knee in South Dako­ta, lis­ten­ing to the sto­ry of the mas­sacre of 1890 from one of the descen­dants of the vic­tims, and in the next scene he is singing “Big Foot,” his song about the tragedy. The film shows Cash’s gen­eros­i­ty toward unknown musi­cians. It also offers a glimpse of his close friend­ship with the young Bob Dylan. When Cash and Dylan got togeth­er in Feb­ru­ary of 1969 for a record­ing ses­sion in Nashville, Elf­strom was there. He doc­u­ment­ed the scene as the two men record­ed Dylan’s “One Too Many Morn­ings.”  Elf­strom told PBS:

John and Bob had got­ten close at that point. John was say­ing, “Gee, I wish Bob would move down here to Ten­nessee. I’ve got a lot of land, and we could be neigh­bors!” So that was fas­ci­nat­ing. We record­ed the two of them very late at night, and they were doing a duet of one of Dylan’s songs. In the mid­dle of the song, both John and Bob for­got the lyrics. So the record­ing ses­sion stopped while peo­ple scam­pered around the Colum­bia Records build­ing try­ing to find the lyrics to a Bob Dylan song. When the lyrics were final­ly found, the two of them got togeth­er again and did some great record­ing. It was real­ly an amus­ing ses­sion because John and Bob were teas­ing each oth­er all the time.

The film was orig­i­nal­ly named Cash, and was slight­ly longer than the ver­sion above. In 2008 it was re-edit­ed and renamed John­ny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music for broad­cast on PBS. It’s a reveal­ing por­trait of the coun­try music leg­end, but Elf­strom allowed his sub­ject cer­tain areas of pri­va­cy. In par­tic­u­lar he avoid­ed doc­u­ment­ing Cash’s well-known addic­tion to drugs. “Even back then, the pow­ers-that-be want­ed me to empha­size the sub­stance abuse stuff, and I had to fight the entire time to stay clear of that,” said Elf­strom. “I did­n’t want that pol­lu­tion to con­fuse the mes­sage of what John was doing. I was total­ly will­ing to take John at face val­ue, and I think he him­self rec­og­nized that ear­ly on and trust­ed me. He was a man strug­gling through life like all of us, doing his best, try­ing to come out on top.”

John­ny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music will be added to our col­lec­tion of 500 Free Movies Online.

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