Why the Man In Black was no Nazi, and other musical misappropriations…

WHAT would Johnny Cash have thought of Neo-Nazis? Not a lot, according to his family. The country singer is no longer around to let us know, but yesterday his family issued a statement condemning a far-right protester in Charlottesville, seen wearing a Johnny Cash T-shirt.

His musician daughter Roseanne spoke on behalf of his family, saying that they’d been sickened at seeing their father’s name emblazoned on a Neo-Nazi chest.

Here is some of what they had to say: “Johnny Cash was a man whose heart beat with the rhythm of love and social justice…We do not judge race, colour, sexual orientation or creed…To any who claim supremacy over other human beings, to any who believe in racial or religious hierarchy: we are not you. Our father, as a person, icon, or symbol, is not you. We ask that the Cash name be kept far away from destructive and hateful ideology.”

Why would a white supremacist with a knuckle of hate for a brain like Johnny Cash? Perhaps it’s the image, the Man In Black and all those songs about prison. But it got me thinking about the way music and musicians can be misappropriated.

In a sense, dead singers are fair game. A racist and a humanitarian might both like Elvis, say. Perhaps it might even give them something they could agree about.

You can’t tread far along with path without bumping into Richard Wagner. The composer has had a long and ignoble association with the Nazis, but it is fair to conflate Wagner and Hitler – and does this coupling destroy the worth of the music? The composer was around long before Hitler, yet he was virulently anti-Semitic, in common with many Germans of the day, and was known to have made monstrous statements about Jews. All of which later attracted the Nazis to his music. Or does the music rise above all that?

Sometimes the unwanted associations are more straightforward. Musicians as various as the Rolling Stones, Adele, REM and Elton John complained about Donald Trump’s campaign using their music. And it must sicken the heart to see words and music written to one end being snatched away in careless opportunism.

Bruce Springsteen was angered in 1984 when Ronald Reagan used Born In The USA in his election campaign, having misunderstood caustic irony for patriotism. Reagan later compounded the injury by quoting Bruce in his speeches, forcing the famously left-leaning singer to issue statements distancing himself from the Republican politician.

Tim Booth of the band James complained when the song Sit Down was used at a Labour Party conference to usher in prime minister Gordon Brown (who once expressed a ludicrous liking for Arctic Monkeys, saying the Sheffield band “wake him up in the morning”).

This is a corridor without end, so let’s wind up with David Byrne, of Talking Heads, who in 2010 sued senator Charlie Crist for using his song Road To Nowhere in an attack ad on his opponents, Marco Rubio. Crist agreed to pay damages and posted an apology on YouTube. And quite right, too – it’s a fabulous song, a sort of bouncy hymn to nihilism.

Musical misappropriation can come with adverts, too. On television now there is an infuriating ad for Boots based around a cover version of that annoying Slade song we suffer every year, swapping ‘summer’ for ‘Christmas’.

Oh great. Here’s a suggestion. Why doesn’t Cadbury’s or someone pinch the song again for their cheapo chocolate eggs. “I Wish It Could be Easter…” Then we could listen to that bloody song all year round.

To return to Mr Cash, perhaps that hate-filled T-shirt wearer should listen to the singer’s late albums, especially The Man Comes Around. There, Cash performs a version of Trent Reznor’s song Hurt that falls like thunder, and should clear away all vestiges of racism. Or it would if these people weren’t so horribly and hatefully stupid.

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