One dilemma I face as a songwriter is balancing authenticity and the sensibilities of the listener, my community of musicians, or even my friends and family. I have a lot to say that doesn’t get said through my songs out of fear that I’ll alienate those around me whom I deeply care about. There’s a reason, after all, that we don’t go around saying exactly what we think at work or around the dinner table.
Some great examples of going there: “Gold Digger,” “My Heroin Addict Sister,” “The Jimmy Buffett Song,” “Fight the Power,” “Choctaw Bingo.”
My favorite: Johnny Cash’s “San Quentin.”
Written the day before his 1969 concert within its walls, “San Quentin” keeps it real, neither glamourizing the outlaw nor excusing the degrading system that the attending guards (his hosts) perpetuate. And everyone’s cool with it (he’s invited back, after all, multiple times), because it’s all true.
Much like African-American’s cheered the Popeye Doyle “never trust a [n-word]” line because Hollywood finally put on film what they knew was being said when white folk thought they weren’t listening, San Quentin brings cheers because the artist brings voice to a truth that everyone in the audience experiences but that rarely sees the sunlight.
He comes in hot and on point: “San Quentin you’ve been livin’ hell to me, you’ve blistered me since 1963.” And the prison crowd erupts.
But they don’t just applaud the lines that blast the big house that holds them. They roar, as well, at the lines that hint at how broken they’ve all become:
San Quentin, I hate every inch of you.
You’ve cut me and you’ve scarred me through and thru.
And I’ll walk out a wiser weaker man;
Mister Congressman why can’t you understand.
You have to build a lot of trust with a tough guy to call him scarred and weak and have him nod his head in agreement.
And that, in a sense, is why a prison guard and a prisoner can both applaud “San Quentin,” and others the songs listed above. Because they say what we’re all thinking (or doing) without pandering to glamorization or justification.
If you’re gonna go there, you gotta go there. You can’t excuse the bad behavior, and you can’t gloss over the gory details. At the same time, however, you also can’t stand in judgment in a way that misunderstands the ugly truth that, at the core, we’re all humans.