Johnny Cash, the Piano, and the Soul

Late in his career Johnny Cash recorded the American series in partnership with producer Rick Rubin. The recordings offered a new generation of listeners acquaintance with the Man in Black in part by reproducing some of their very own favorite songs. The sounds are at moments haunting, oftentimes hopeful, but always acid-washed by the gritty baritone of Cash. They come echoing out of a cavernous soul, more patinated than polished. One song in particular sticks out as a picture of a life lived through road rash and redemption.

“Sea of Heartbreak” was written by Paul Hampton and Hal David and originally performed by Don Gibson in 1961. The song laments of “lost love and loneliness” and it longs for a love he describes as “divine.” In the original, Gibson is backed up by a doo-wap choir and the bass line is delivered by a male voice. The voice bumps down the line and then rebounds. In Cash’s remake, the leading base notes are provided by a piano. They descend, but they do not ascend in a similar run, instead only meeting Cash from time to time as he himself ascends with the melody. The notes are struck hard and give a brassy ring.

Those brassy base piano notes are found throughout the American series and are a unique characteristic of the lower register of pianos. The quality of the sound comes from the nature of piano wires, and amounts to a defect – or at least an unintended effect.

A string resonates most perfectly if it can bend completely under its own weight. Metal strings have a tendency to resist the pull of gravity, but the thinner they are, the more they comply. In a piano, this makes for clear, pure tones in the upper register. But, for a given thickness of wire, lower tones come from longer strings. If the same thickness of wire were used throughout the piano, then to achieve the seven octave registry of the standard 88 keys, the lowest note would be played on a wire over thirty feet long. To make the piano a practical instrument, the lower strings are made thicker. The greater density of the wire allows for lower notes in shorter strings.

To maintain flexibility and a clear tone, the string is wound with copper instead of being made from a solid piece. Yet, the compromise is not perfect and the lower notes are left with a tone of lesser quality. If only those strings which had to be were wound, there would be a jarring shift in quality while going from the pure, unwound tones to the clangy bass notes. Piano manufacturers make this shift less obvious by fudging some notes in the middle; notes which could have been more pure are rendered less pure for the sake of consistency. Therefore, as one ascends up the keys of the piano, the timbre passes smoothly from heavy base strings through an admixture of lightness and heaviness, finally ending on tones of clarity unmixed.

In “Sea of Heartbreak,” those leading base notes, which replace the voice heard in the original, remind us of the loneliness of lost love. They clang like the burdened soul who clangs yet wishes to ring. They ascend spasmodically like the soul of Cash did and like the souls of many of us still do. But the song offers us hope. In the bridge, Cash cries out:

O! What I’d give just to sail back to shore – back to your arms once more!
Come to my rescue, O, come here to me.
Take me and keep me away from the sea.

And this time, the base line is struck on higher strings. They are still the wound strings of an imperfect register, but they possess, not so much a greater clarity, but the hope of perfect clarity – the hope of every soul which has cried out Come to my rescue, O, come here to me! And we who sing these words with lips of faith shall hear, as did John the Revelator, “Surely, I come quickly.” Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.











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An Argument Against Slavery

Aristotle, in his Politics, says that a slave is the possession of another man (Politics, 1253b 31). One might argue that if this is the definition of slavery, then slavery does not exist because one man cannot be the possession of another. I argue that it might be the case that one man be the possession of another, yet that slavery is impossible.

This is because one possession cannot be owned by two people if one of the people owns the possession completely. It is clear that a man cannot wholly own himself because possession is a relationship between two unique beings. If a man be owned, it is by another.

Furthermore, possession is not merely a matter of proximity or the posture of one’s hands around the other being. It is more properly the result of a claim. If one has a valid claim on something, one can be said to have possession of it with qualification. The qualification is that another may have physical proximity and posture of hands or chains upon the thing to be possessed, but without a claim, this possession is illegitimate.

It is also true that Christ has laid claim to every man’s life through his sacrifice on the cross. This claim is for the totality of every man: Jesus does not bargain with bits of men. Thus, Christ can be said to be in possession, in a qualified sense, of every man. It is qualified because not every man has allowed Christ to lay hold of him. Yet it is true that no man can lay a legitimate claim on any other man. No man can possess another man. All instances of slavery are illegitimate.

2Peter 1:1  Simeon Peter, a slave (doulos) and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained a faith equal in value to ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.

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Jesus’ Commentary on Aristotle

Aristotle’s comments on liberality in Book 4 Chapter 1 of the Nicomachean ethics are similar to the teachings of our Lord on money. Aristotle says that people who have less can give less and be just as liberal as those who have more and give more; Jesus commends the widow for the two mites she gives.

Aristotle says that it is not easy for a liberal person to be wealthy because he is not inclined to safeguard money and is likely to give it away: Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to go to Heaven.

Aristotle says that the prodigal person does not take pleasure and pain where he ought with regards to the spending and receiving of money. He gives where he ought not and he does not take where he ought. Further, Aristotle says that the prodigal person is not necessarily base or corrupt and that he can be changed into a liberal person with proper care or with age and want. He contrasts this with the stingy person who does not give where he ought or takes where he ought not. The stingy person cannot be cured and is worse off than the prodigal person. However, Aristotle admits that the prodigal person who is without proper care can become stingy in that he is prone to take where he ought not to feed his prodigality. These stingy types of prodigals, it would seem, are not curable.

Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son confirmed all but one of these claims. In the Lord’s parable, the son desires to take from his father what he ought not to take, thus showing himself to be stingy. He later shows himself to be prodigal as he wastes all his money and becomes poor. What finally turned the man from his prodigality was not pain at the ignobility of his actions, but hunger and want. Thus, the man’s transition was not a true change of character, but a change in the provisions that enabled his viciousness.

The son’s desire to earn from his father what had been previously free could be understood as either prodigality, as he was not taking as he ought, or stinginess, as he was taking what he ought not. Either way, we see that the son has not become more virtuous. What has happened is that the son has become contrite.

Thus, when the son returns to his father, thinking him to be liberal, we discover that the father is in fact Magnanimous. That the father is magnanimous and not just magnificent is revealed by the fact that he runs to meet his son. It is the contrition of the son that brings him back to his father, but the magnanimity of the father that lavishes the son with blessings. The father makes no indication that he believes his son has become more virtuous. Neither does he condition his love on a promise of the son’s future virtue. The robe is not earned by virtue, neither is the ring deserved.

Christ promised us that when we returned to the Father that he would place His Seal in us, the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we are told to put off the old man, like a garment of clothing, and to put on Christ. Aristotle was wrong that some men are so corrupt or base that they cannot be changed.

God receives us into His house and makes us Sons even if we only come because we are hungry.

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