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.