Ain’t No Grave. The video mash-up. Sort of. A meditation.
Many months back, when Johnny Cash’s final American album was released, I meant to assemble and write this blog. Responses to my recent Charlie Louvin entry reminded me of it, and so I shall give it a try now. Go gentle, for this is my first attempt to interact with video in this kind of setting.
The last meaningful musical movement my mother allowed into her house by choice (as opposed to by older brother) was the folk boom. Which means she quit listening along about 1960, shortly after I was born. Once, I made the mistake of playing the first track from Springsteen’s Nebraska (the only one of his records I have any interest in, and even then I, too, saw the Martin Sheen movie about Charlie Starkweather) and her face pinched in obvious pain. “Do I have to?” she asked, and she didn’t. Still doesn’t!
Nevertheless, I took from her fascination with the folk boom a sometimes annoying penchant to follow songs as they evolve. As the folk process has its way. In part this is why I went along with Peter’s choice to call our magazine No Depression; our small contribution to the folk process.
The song I wish to assault here is “Ain’t No Grave.” Following are three versions, and the videos which (theoretically) go with them. And a few ill-chosen, quickly typed words.
I need to get past my adoration of this incarnation of Crooked Still. It no longer exists; like all great things, it was a moment in time which has passed. Regardless, I’m tickled they placed this song on “True Blood,” but had to hunt some to find a version on YouTube that was listenable, with the original line-up, and not simply the song played over a sedentary found image. (C’mon, this is the video age: Do something if you’re going to upload a song.) And, I need some day to purchase their latest album, as I’ve quite reasonably fallen off most mailing lists. I find it more difficult to buy CDs than I would have imagined, only in part because it is difficult to justify spending the money. Absent the brick and mortar world in which I as once a joyous habitue, I find it much easier not to hunt CDs, not to spend money. To do something else.
Not the point. “Ain’t No Grave” is a classic gospel song in which the singer defies death, exults in the eternal life Christianity (among religions) promises. Crooked Still were young when they recorded this. Young and frolicsome and death is a long way from the world they expect to inhabit. Death does not touch them, except remotely. (This is, granted, a guess; it is also a response to the way the music sounds.) The song is fun to sing, and comes with a hint of danger…that whiff of death. Mortality, viewed from a distance.
One of the things I notice here in my small town is that death touches me often. This is, I think, a good thing, though it is still uncomfortable and I have yet to figure out how to modulate my response to death in a publicly acceptable fashion.
When hunting for Crooked Still in YouTube, before I’d seen them and when I had no idea how they presented their music (see, I’m a technophobe, but not unreasonable…at least not all the time), I ran into Russ Taff’s version of this song by accident. I suppose this is the good (not god, as I typed by accident) which comes of search engines and digital proximity. Taff, it turns out — I blogged about him and this song long ago and in the website’s previous incarnation, so it’s gone baby gone — is a midlevel star of contemporary Southern Gospel. More importantly, to me anyhow, he was one of the singers who influenced my friend Hayseed. (And if I keep writing about Hayseed often enough maybe he’ll finally finish a record.)
This version of “Ain’t No Grave” is entirely different. Taff is not a young man, not an innocent. He is also a committed Christian singer, singing (I think) in a church setting. While there is a kind of casual defiance to Crooked Still’s version, Taff sings with the passion of Blind Willie Johnson. With the certainty of loss, and the grasp of what is promised.
(I do not, incidentally, share in the Christian faith. But I kinda like the music, and I have been to Spain. A short bow to Mr. Axton, whose songs still sing.)
And then this:
I still don’t know how I feel about Johnny Cash’s coda with Rick Rubin. I’m glad it happened for Mr. Cash, but I’m not entirely sure what it meant. To an extent I am here rehashing an e-mail conversation I had some years ago with Rich Kienzle, who argued persuasively that Rubin saw in Cash only the black caricature, only the darkness, and little of the humor and humanity. Certainly not the duet partner of “Jackson,” say.
No question Cash understood this album, these sessions, and especially this song as a final offering. No question he is a man deeply in touch with his own mortality. He is far too gifted a singer not to appreciate the decay of his voice, and so gifted that he makes that well-broken instrument suit his purpose.