By Taylor Lanier
On the evening of February 22, members of the Sewanee community settled into Convocation Hall to hear the talk entitled “Johnny Cash in the Holy Land: Christian Zionism and American Pop Culture,” given by Dr. Shalom Goldman, the Pardon Tillinghast Professor of Religion at Middlebury College.
Goldman interspersed his lecture on the personal histories of Johnny Cash’s life as a gospel musician with selections of Cash’s gospel music performed by folk singer Lisa Deaton, Sewanee alumnus and country musician Jason Lee Wilson (C’01), and Sewanee associate registrar and singer/songwriter Sheri Kling.
In 1971 while living in Israel, the Brooklyn-bred, 20-year-old Goldman became curious as to why Johnny Cash was planning a trip to the Holy Land. Goldman describes that in the 1970s, the Jewish peoples were the ones who primarily sought out Jerusalem. Cash’s arrival and eventual obsession with the place came to symbolize the American Protestant attraction to Israel, or “Palestine-Mania.” Even as the transnational question of the rights to the Holy Land preceded popular American Zionism, Cash’s elated attitude towards the place of perpetual exile was markedly optimistic.
Goldman explains that Cash became familiar with gospel music and was later inspired to attend revival meetings in his twenties. As a choirmaster, Cash’s mother often left her book of hymns out on the kitchen table. The Holy Land was no longer sanctified in Heaven alone—so long as a man or woman could hope to see Zion, all the hymns were made real. The Christian age of the metaphor drew to close, and an actual pilgrimage like that of the Islamic pilgrimage to the Mecca became a point of interest amongst Christians in America.
In 1973, Johnny and June took it upon themselves to create a musical film in Israel called “Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus.” No studio would back the film and it flopped, and the Cash family had spent all of their money on its production. Yet Johnny clung to his vision and continued to create music whilst walking around the holy cities of Israel.
June had a dream that Johnny was singing over the River of Galeo where Jesus had walked on water, and the film features a reenactment of her dream, singing songs and teachings from his gospel album The Gospel Road. Having watched this scene during Goldman’s lecture, Tori Hinshaw (C’19) reflects: “I had no idea the Cashes made a movie like that. It showed a side of Johnny I never thought much about. It was clear how intentional the movie was from the scenic film to the deeply spiritual soundtrack.”
Johnny Cash’s gospel songwriting is drenched in saudade, which Portuguese scholar Aubrey Bell describes as a sense of longing that does not constitute “an active discontent or poignant sadness,” but rather “an indolent dreaming wistfulness.”
Johnny and June’s early dalliance with the Holy Land certainly outlived the “honeymoon phase.” In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the couple took their children to see and be baptized in the Jordan River. Goldman notes that, for the Cashes, there was “something inherent in the air, water, and land, that gave you a blessing.” Goldman also makes a poignant remark: “the Jordan [River] is not the Mississippi–you can hop over it when it’s not in the rainy season.”
Unlike many other pilgrims and artists that were drawn to the biblical waters and holy cities, the Cashes were never disillusioned. Even for Cash’s daughter Rosanne, traveling to Israel became an emblematic and spiritually informative experience.
June and Johnny Cash became honored guests to the Israeli Government, or “honorary Israelis,” and in a 1995 travel ad, Johnny Cash insisted that Palestine was both “beautiful and safe.” Goldman referenced the American public’s alarmingly high approval rate regarding President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017, and likened Cash to an old uncle who “will not be moved” when it comes to political issues.
Cash’s friends consistently urged him to moderate his view of Israel, but Cash held “opaque stances” when it came to foreign conflict. Overall, Cash strived to maintain a wholly biblical relationship to the Holy Land, or perhaps a “political-spiritual” relationship as Goldman suggests, due to his public promotion of the contested place.
Encouraging the audience to read along, Goldman drew attention to a quote from Mark Twain on an accompanying handout with the Cashs’ gospel lyrics: “The word Palestine always brought to my mind a vague suggestion of a country as large as the United States. I do not know why, but such was the case. I suppose it was because I could not conceive of a small country having so large a history” (1869). The Cash family has at once complicated and condensed the American understanding of the contemporary Holy Land.