“Johnny Cash helped me get out of prison” – So sang David Allan Coe in his song Long Haired Redneck. Not familiar with Coe? Good. DO NOT You Tube him! You WILL be grossly offended. (He’ll make Grapes look like Pope Benedict!) He sure wrote some beauties though. If you subscribe to the belief that Satchmo, Lennon and Karen Carpenter are now performing the Sunday Sessions for the Almighty then you’d have to assume that Coe and Paycheck are likely serenading old Beelzebub around a campfire somewhere. (Likely awaiting the piano accompaniment Jimmy Swaggart.) All of this to say that although Johnny Cash did not get me out of prison, he did get me in front of Saint Mary for few minutes. Oh wait a minute… I’ll start from the beginning.
I’d memorized five records by the time I was ten years old. The original Woodstock, (Cheech and Chong – Los Cochinos), K-Tel’s 20 Explosive Hits (FT: The Cover of the Rolling Stone), Johnny Cash (20 Original Hits) and Stompin’ Tom (Live at The Horseshoe.) This should tell you everything you need to know. Essentially, I was the only kid in grade five screaming, “Don’t touch the brown acid” in the voice of Sgt. Stadanko. Likely the only relatable piece of fiction for my peers was the recitation of Silverstein’s ‘Giving Tree’, which I fraudulently marketed as my own creation. All of this to say, that when I finally grew up and learned how to perform the Cash classic ‘A Boy Named Sue’, it always made me feel great. To this day if I perform this song it still transports me into a happy world – not ‘Gatlinburg in mid-July’ per se but usually somewhere on a baseball diamond with my buddies in 1978.
About four months ago, I was invited by The Green Wood Coalition, (a non-profit organization with the simple mandate of providing food and shelter for those in need) to participate in a Johnny Cash Tribute fundraiser at The Capital Theatre in Port Hope, Ontario. Entitled “Till Things are Brighter – The Songs of Johnny Cash”, a crew of great Canadian roots songwriters and musicians assembled to contribute their talents to this worthy cause. We performed our songs to a theatre of regional Cash fans, local volunteers and some of the folks in need of the Coalitions helping hand. (Many of these folks in need lined the first few rows of the theatre and the energy they added to the event was palpable.) A few hours later the curtain fell and we all went our separate ways, but not without feeling a sense of fulfillment. Something I hadn’t felt in quite some time.
A few days later I was reflecting on this feeling. What was it? It reminded me of an innocent – pure sensation I once felt as a young child. I have a few friends who are very actively involved in charitable causes in their communities and they’ve often suggested it to be such a rewarding experience – a mutually beneficial concept. Now… I’m not saying I’ve never pitched in here or there or done a few kind deeds over the years, but my contribution to society through volunteering is very much in the minus category. I’m probably just caught up in some narcissistic mentality carried over from the ME generation passed on to them from The Greatest Generation. (Whew…blame it on someone else!) That said, having lived as a true artist for a while now, I’ve come to empathize with those who struggle for some of life’s basic necessities: shelter – food – clothing. Many dealing with an array of addictions and illnesses. This realization has been profound. Likely one of the best things that will ever happen to me. (Perhaps outside of marrying a circa 1969 Jeannie C. Riley.) So without worrying about it too much, I contacted the coordinator of the Green Wood Coalition and he invited me to come in and perform a few songs during their Wednesday night pot-luck dinner at St. Mary’s Secondary School in Port Hope. He had recently been following my blog and thought it may be a great idea to arrive in the afternoon to conduct a writing workshop. So, before you know it, I was on the road to St. Mary’s to talk, listen, sing, eat, pray, love…you get the picture.
Twelve of us sat in a circle sharing our best ‘road stories’. Here are some paraphrased snippets:
* “Hitch-hiking is not what is used to be. I picked up a hitch-hiker and drove them right to their destination. Upon leaving the car, the hitchhiker asked me for some money. After all I had done – I felt this was an unfair request. The hitch-hiker went inside and called the police on me. Don’t hitch-hike or pick up hitch-hikers kids.”
* “I was in the house band at the infamous Maple Leaf Tavern in Timmins in the early eighties (post Stompin’ Tom days) when a young gangly girl named Eileen walked in with her parents to sing some songs. I was back in my room partying and missed the young Shania Twain’s debut performance. Don’t get caught up in too much partying kids. “
* “My friend and I decided we were going to leave Alberta and thought we would jump a train. We snuck on to one of the cars and waited. Suddenly we realized the train beside us was moving. We were on the wrong one – a train goin’ nowhere. Don’t get on a train goin nowhere kids.”
The stories and songs rolled on into the dinner hour. We broke bread together and shared many more stories. I learned that Catherine MacLellan had performed at the Coalition dinner the previous month. Her father was legendary songwriter and performer Gene MacLellan who penned ‘Snowbird’ however my table mates seemed to remember his other classic composition ‘Put Your Hand in the Hand’ a little more. They recounted how she discussed the very relevant issues of depression, artistic suffering and suicide. Heavy? You bet. Courageous, pertinent and healing? Absolutely! I was listening to first-hand accounts of how her presence and songs touched hearts that night very deeply. A memorable dinner indeed!
A few more songs were sung and suddenly I found myself tearing down my equipment and saying my good-byes. There I was, back in silence of my car driving toward the big smoke. All was quiet. It seemed dark and still. I started humming that old familiar song ‘Put Your Hand in the Hand’. It flooded back to me. It was in grade four…yeah…my teacher…the beautiful Miss Kautu. She was the very first person I’d ever seen play the guitar and sing – live – right there in front of me. She seemed almost angelic. My first crush. It changed me. A year later I’d be listening to Cash and Cheech and Chong. Innocence lost. I remembered her rendition of’ One Tin Soldier’ and of course ‘Put Your Hand in the Hand’. The words flooded back to me:
“Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who stilled the water
Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who calmed the sea
Take a look at yourself
and you can look at others differently
Put your hand in the hand of the man
It’s no wonder this was the song my dinner mates recalled. It’s a song about hope and holding on. About being accountable to ones self. I felt really good.
“Take a look at yourself and you can look at others differently”
Thanks Gene. Hope you’re enjoying the band up there. Say hi to Johnny and June for me!
Johnny you may have led me to Port Hope but Gene you truly helped me get out of prison.