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March 15, 2005

If I Give My Soul

I notice Dave is doing some Johnny Cash blogging at See the Forest. I know an opening when I see one.

I've been meaning to write something about Johnny Cash's interpretation of Billy Joe Shaver's If I Give My Soul. It's one of Cash's lesser-known recordings, but for me it's up there with Folsom Prison, Big River and Ring of Fire.

Cash transforms My Soul from a simple gospel song into one of the most emotionally powerful and intellectually challenging works of his career. I've probably listened to this song more times than any other Johnny Cash tune. It just gets more satisfying every time.

If I Give My Soul
Unearthed I: Who's Gonna Cry
Lost Highway Records, 2003

Down a dangerous road, I have come to where I'm standing
With a heavy heart, and my hat clutched in my hands
Such a foolish man, God ain't known no greater sinner
I have come in search of Jesus, hoping He will understand

If I give my soul, will He clean these clothes I'm wearin'
If I give my soul, will He put new boots on my feet
If I bow head, and beg God for His forgiveness
Will He breathe new life within me and bring her back to me?

I had a woman once, she was kind and she was gentle
Had a child by me, who grew up to be a man
I had a steady job, 'til I started into drinkin'
Then I started making music, travelin' with the devil's band

Oh the years went by like a mighty rush of eagles*
Our dreams and plans were all scattered in the wind
And it's a lonesome life, when you lose the ones you live for
If I make my peace with Jesus, will they take me back again?

If I give my soul, will he stop my hands from shakin'
If I give my soul, will my son love me again
If I give my soul, and she she knows I really mean it
If I give my soul to Jesus, will she take me back again?

If I give my soul, will He clean clothes these clothes I'm wearin'
If I give my soul, will He put new boots on my feet
If I bow head and beg God for for His forgiveness
Will He breathe new breath within me and bring her back to me?


I hate Billy Joe Shaver's version. The original recording is just another maudlin song about a sinner coming to Jesus. The worse he seems now, the more miraculous his impending salvation. Shaver implies that of course Jesus would do this sinner's laundry (or its metaphorical equivalent), all the guy has to do is ask.

Johnny Cash's interpretation is totally different. It took me a couple of months and dozens of listenings to understand what Cash was trying to say over and above the original.

The story is unusually sad, even for country music. The singer isn't just broken-hearted or chemically dependent. He's an old man facing a lonely death at the end of a wasted life.

This song is especially wrenching for me a an atheist because I don't believe in the power of the God he's invoking. Moreover, the singer's ruminations on Jesus and his prospects for new boots sound like the epitome of shallow, superstitious religiosity. It's pathetic to hear this guy speculating about whether he can arrange some kind of last-minute quid pro quo.

But Cash was a devout Christian. I doubt that he meant My Soul to be a Nietzcheian parody of religious belief. So, what does this character seem so hopeless to him? I think Cash imagines the singer as a small, selfish guy who still doesn't get it. In his despair, he's trying to sell his soul to Jesus the way someone else might strike a bargain with the devil. He imagines that salvation is a deal he can cut with God. He isn't ready to give up the manipulative mindset of the addict, but he doesn't realize it.

From the perspective of a reflective evangelical like Johnny Cash, the singer's plight seems even more tragic than it might to an atheist. To someone who doesn't believe in God, it sounds like this guy has nothing to lose. Jesus won't bring his ex-wife back, but religion might at least make him feel better.

Cash sees the singer as a truly tragic figure--a man who desperately wants to atone for his sins but who doesn't understand that the same shallow, manipulative nature that ruined his life will also damn his immortal soul.

* The liner notes say "eagles," but on the recording Cash sings something that sounds like "egos." I think it works equally well either way.

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Comments

do you have the cash/dylan/perkins '69 nashville sessions?

I’m not surprised that Cash moved you, the most spiritual people I know are atheist, they are passionate that God could not exist because they realize that if he did he would be a being alongside other beings. Believing in the existence of God is the ultimate idolatry but feeling that ache inside while listening to Cash, that’s faith.

OK. I never quite got the song. Now I think I do. Thanks.

I agree that "Cash transforms My Soul from a simple gospel song into one of the most emotionally powerful and intellectually challenging works of his career." But that was the singing/performance aspect. Never gave the lyrics as much thought as you have.

Now if I can remember where I put that recording, or who I loaned it to (how long ago?).

Majikthise, I don't understand how you hear an "an old man facing a lonely death at the end of a wasted life" rather than a man in the midst of life taking stock and regretting loss. You are perhaps still young. Also do you mean to imply that the "shallow", "manipulative", "small, selfish" "pathetic" "addict" would deserve damnation if there was a God, and that Cash is similarly judgemental? I don't hear that. Cash didn't do twelve-step moralising.

johnny cash and william blake, both of them christian artists, make the evangies look and sound like the small souls that they are.

and this comes from a deist who thought jesus was good, but not all that and two bags of chips.

Quisp, I don't have that recording. I'd like to check it out.

Stephen, your point is well taken about the age of the character. The lyrics establish that he's at least middle aged. When Shaver sings it, there's no particular reason to think he's old. But Cash chose to interpret that song at a point in his career when his own voice was showing signs of age.

I don't think Cash isn't saying that the guy deserves to be damned. I think he's just pointing out the irony of someone who really wants to be saved but who's totally confused about what it means to be a Christian.

It reads like beautiful irony to me, too. (I haven't heard the song yet, so I'm just reading it as a poem.)

My reading is a little different. The narrator has hit bottom, his 'dreams and plans' are 'scattered in the wind' and he's lost those he loved. Jesus can save him from damnation, but he can't correct his past mistakes. The rhetorical questioning, on this reading, isn't an attempt to strike a bargain. It is rather a lament that the bargain won't bring back what's been lost. This is one source of tragedy in the song -- even salvation won't remove his sorrows. But there is something further. Because his sorrows can't be cured, the narrator has trouble seeing why he should give his soul. So another source of tragedy in the song is this, that the narrator's regret for past mistakes may prevent him from asking for salvation.

Zwichenzug, I think our interpretations are getting at similar core ideas. I wish more artists would cover this song, because the lyrics would fit so many interesting interpretations.

For example, I can imagine John Prine singing the same lyrics in a more rueful or sarcastic tone. In my mind's ear, that would sound like the lament you're describing. The singer doubts whether salvation is worthwhile because he knows that even Jesus can't undo his past mistakes.

When Cash sings the questions, they don't sound rhetorical to me. They come across as naive, but hopeful. The singer sees salvation as a kind of magic. The song is an inner dialogue about whether he should make God an offer: If I give my soul, what might I get in exchange?

Cash wants us to think about how that kind of self-centeredness undermines everything we care about--emotionally and spiritually.

Generally speaking, I don't think it's very productive to figure out what song lyrics are supposed to mean. At a minimum, each line of a song has to contain a certain number of syllables, and certain words in a song have to rhyme with one another. If you had to go around talking like that, you probably wouldn't do a very good job getting your meaning across. Why should songs be any different? I think that the words in a song are usually determined mostly by the constraints of the format; if they happen to mean something intelligible, that might be a bonus, but it's certainly not required.

Interesting you posted this. I'm not a fan of Johnny Cash's, just not my thing, but I'm familiar with some of his more popular songs. I'd never heard My Soul before until a few weeks ago. One of our local public radio stations does a bluegrass/gospel show at night on the weekends and I happened to turn it on while getting ready for bed. I was going to change to a different station but this song really put a hook in me. Unfortunately I came in mid-song, but I was amazed. I'd go so far as to say it's a MUCH better song from him than any of his hits. MUCH more heart-felt. I missed the announcement of the song, so until today I never knew what it was called. Thanks.

I think the questions are naive but hopeful the first time around, but that the hope is quashed by the realization that the losses really are permanent.

And David - I understand the skepticism, but if you're right then we're going to have to give up on a lot of poetry. Sonnets and haiku spring to mind as poetic modes which are highly formalized, and which nevertheless seem to retain the possibility of deep meaning. I think the right sort of line to take here is to say that form (and hence formal restrictions) creates the possibility of meaning.

I think too you might hear this as uncertain - all I've got is my soul, and I'm not sure that's enough.
And I'm sure you're right that it wasn't intended this way, but it's interesting that it can also strike you as a parody. I get the same parodic effect from "The Man Comes Around" - all the record-keeping of transgressions, the massive parades of angels and stern punishment of the unrighteous makes the day of judgement sound like something out of North Korea.

Thank you, most interesting. Slightly different take here:

The guy isn't asking for a fatted calf or to be taken away on a Gospel Ship. Symbolic mythical wishes don't speak accurately of the renewal he really wants. He doesn't know how to express that, at all. The nearest he can get is to pull out everything in his life that's broken and can't be fixed. Nothing less than that properly expresses his pain, his helplessness - and so nothing less expresses his need for a redemption he can't articulate. Just that it would be a miracle.

Cash's man is constructing repentance strictly out of what's authentically his, and in the process, telling the listener what a miracle is, i.e. the impossible made real.

Generally speaking, I don't think it's very productive to figure out what song lyrics are supposed to mean. At a minimum, each line of a song has to contain a certain number of syllables, and certain words in a song have to rhyme with one another.

Yeah, it really makes you wonder where anyone ever got the idea that metered verse could have semantic content. What were Shakespeare and Milton thinking?

Well, let me retreat a little bit. I think everything anyone says in verse could be better said in prose. A clever person can get his meaning across in verse, as I suppose I'll have to grant Shakespeare and Milton did. But, according to me, verse never enhances one's meaning, and very often destroys it.

Consider the Johnny Cash song under consideration here. Perhaps Johnny Cash did mean to raise the question whether someone could sell one's soul to Jesus the same way someone could sell one's soul to the devil. That's certainly an interesting question, but why not raise it explicitly? Maybe it's because he couldn't put the question in such a way that the right words rhyme in the right spots!

maybe he didn't raise it "explicitly" (your definition of "explicitly") because he's an artist. rhyme, meanwhile, is a tool, also a convention, also a restraint, as are a lot of things (song length, meter, singing in tune, musicianship, etc.). Anyway, I call your "everything anyone says in verse could be better said in prose" with this:

The best things said in verse can't be better said by anyone anywhere ever.

Nobody really likes an artist because of how explicitly he raises issues. In fact, explicit anything is often a problem. That's why ineffable is a good thing.

OK, substitute "more clearly said" for "better said" in my previous comment.

Anyway, if you think the meanings of songs are "ineffable" then I think we are mostly in agreement here. Certainly there's no point in trying to understand what is ineffable.

Yeah, what's with all those ineffable, inscrutable characters Shakespeare wrote -- Hamlet, Iago, Lear, etc? What's the point of staging or reading any of those plays? (Now Elle Woods, that's a character.)

in·ef·fa·ble ( P ) Pronunciation Key (n-f-bl)
adj.
Incapable of being expressed; indescribable or unutterable. See Synonyms at unspeakable.
Not to be uttered; taboo: the ineffable name of God.

You're not impressing anyone, David. Besides, two can play at that game.

I find it hard to believe, Thad, that you aren't impressed when someone cuts and pastes the definition of a word from dictionary.com.

Here's a question:

Compare Johnny Cash's song with Lindsay's explanation of its meaning, and ask: Did Lindsay or Cash do a better job of making the point which Lindsay attributes to Cash?

I've never heard the song in question, but I think I got a pretty good idea of what it means from reading Lindsay's post. On the other hand, on this very thread there are people who claim to have heard the song many times without ever knowing what it's supposed to be about.

David, aren't you a philosopher? Haven't you taken an aesthetics course at some point?

I think perhaps the greatest tragic interpretation might be from the point of view of the despairing agnostic. For an agnostic, turning to God is something that is done only at the very end of your rope- at the last moment before final despair. I interpret this as "I am in desperate need, alone and bereft. My only chance is God- and I have this awful feeling that means no chance at all." Also, the song feels like the narrator is heartbroken, and what he really wants is his lover back... and he knows the odds of that happening are about as good as the Red Sea parting for him.

In any case, really, really sad.

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