Anybody who ever met Jim in his later years knows that he had a real love-hate relationship with this time of year. Any holiday or birthday, especially Thanksgiving or Christmas, just seemed to depress him, and that depression would then send him into one of his manic spirals, full of misanthropy and chaos. Sadly, he started to use the holidays as an excuse to “get weird” and tune into the darker side of his nature, but that wasn’t always the case. Nowhere is the lighter, hope-filled side of Jim more evident than in his work documenting the Cash family, who embraced him, allowed him into their lives and their Hendersonville, Tenn. home just like he was one of the family.
And, the intimate, powerful portraits that emerged – many taken during the Carter Family Thanksgiving of 1969 – are the legacy of that trust. As always when diving into Jim’s proofs, you never know what or who you’ll find and the connections and collaborations can be truly intriguing. For example, in these Thanksgiving ’69 shots you see singer-songwriting renaissance men, Shel Silverstein and Kris Kristofferson, along with Johnny’s beloved parents Ray & Carrie Cash, his adored wife June Carter Cash, and the rest of the extended Carter clan.
A Boy Named Shel
I must confess, prior to researching these shots, I only knew about Silverstein from his amazing career as an illustrator, primarily of children’s books (more on him in our next blog), so I was delighted to discover that he wrote a number of songs for Cash, including the humorous and oddly touching major hit, “A Boy Named Sue,” which Cash first performed live during his famous San Quentin concert. Check out this video which captures the moment and notice how Johnny’s still figuring out how to put the song over. Amazing. From the A Boy Named Sue’s Wikipedia page (yes the song has it’s own page):
“In his autobiography, Cash wrote that he had just received “A Boy Named Sue” and only read over it a couple of times. It was included in that concert to try it out—he did not know the words and on the filmed recording he can be seen regularly referring to a piece of paper. Cash was surprised at how well the song went over with the audience. The rough, spontaneous performance with sparse accompaniment was included in the ‘Johnny Cash At San Quentin’ album, ultimately becoming one of Cash’s biggest hits. “According to Shel Silverstein’s biographer Mitch Myers, it was June Carter Cash who encouraged her husband to perform the song. Silverstein introduced it to them at what they called a ‘Guitar Pull,’ where musicians would pass a guitar around and play their songs.”
And Jim, with those big orphan eyes and an even bigger heart, was there to record it all in 1969. I’m quite sure he was counting his lucky stars to be allowed such unfettered access; to be trusted enough to see the moments and know in his heart when to press the shutter and when to turn away. I’m not sure it’s a skill that can be taught, to tell you the truth. That’s why, somehow, I think we are the truly lucky ones to get to see, in some instances for the first time here in this blog, the lovely results of that trust and access ... all these long years later.