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November 30, 2023

Funny Papers Again Column | What Would JR Sing to Leaders Today?

Back in 1980, I spent a couple hours with an American icon, a man whose music struck chords across a wide swath of the nation and at times insinuated itself into the political discussion. He came from a small, rural part of Arkansas, born into a sharecropping family where picking cotton was main means of making money. He was born without a first name, the family just called him JR, but the world would come to know him as Johnny Cash, The Man in Black.

It is less important how I met the man as is the venue, which was a prison, so non-partisan to say the least. I mention this because although there was a Democrat in the Oval Office at the time, Mr. Cash was not popular with members of the Far Right, or indeed much of the Republican Party, due to this appearance in the East Room of the White House a few years earlier.

Let us take a look at that appearance and then take a look at the present national situation and ruminate on what JR may have to say nowadays. It seems that after the 1968 national election, which carried Richard Milhouse Nixon into the White House for his first term, things were not looking well on the national scene — what with all the opposition to the War in Vietnam, opposition which in prior years was limited to student activists (and radicals) has now encompassed people from all walks of American life.

The streets of American cities and towns saw many marches and sit-ins and in some cases riots and six college students shot dead by troops. This did not sit well for Mr. Nixon’s image, so he proposed a night of music and requested The Man in Black. What the president thought was that he could bolster support in the Southern states and country musicians were more grounded in what he felt should be American values, so not only did he request the biggest and best known artist, he told the artist what songs he wanted his hand-picked conservative audience to hear: “Okie from Muscogee,” a Merle Haggard song, and Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac”; both which took aim at liberal ideals. This was a mistake.

A man who sang in prisons and had just returned from entertaining troops in Vietnam and who was widely known as an independent spirit was not going to hold back on expressing his opinions even to a sitting president. Instead of what was asked for, Mr. Cash gave them a song he had written just for the occasion and for just that audience, so “What is Truth” was born. I don’t have the room to include all the lyrics, so I’ll use just the last stanza:

The young girl dancing to the latest beat, has found a new way to move her feet
The young man speaking in the city square, is trying to tell somebody that he cares
Yeah, the ones you are calling wild, are gonna be the leaders in a little while
The ol’ world is wakin’ to a new born day, and I solemnly swear it’ll be their way
You better help the voice of youth find “What is truth?”
And the lonely voice of youth cries “What is truth?”

I have seven grandchildren from ages 26 years (as of today, Tuesday, Oct. 3) down to 10 years, and I am concerned that they do, in fact, not know what the truth is about certain situations or acts on the national radar. There are questions which when answered offer up wide gaps in the body politic.

Was the 2020 election rigged? Many think so, but no proof ever offered in numerous court cases. Did the Chief Executive and his son commit crimes? Many think so, but as yet no proof. Is the present administration leading down a path of communism? Is the Far Right seeking to lead unto into autocratic rule behind a man fighting felony charges on all fronts? Does America become stronger with open immigration; or do millions seeking our way of life weaken our way of life? Are those not heterosexual not worth the same respect of those who are; and if not, why not? Who exactly is “our” when that pronoun is used by national leaders to describe American values? What is truth?

I know how I would answer these questions if asked by my grandchildren; but it is still up to them to find truth on their own. I hope they, and all young people, will come to know truth, if indeed such a thing is even possible anymore.

***

I hate going to the dentist. This started when I was about 8 years old in the office of a butcher in Soledad whom shall remain nameless, a petty man to say the least. While in the waiting area with my dad, I heard a godawful scream come from down the hallway where the torture rooms were. “Ouch” was the only really discernible word, all other noises were those associated with kids undergoing one horrible procedure or another.

I was naturally alarmed, so the nurse led me down to a small room where perched on the branch of a small tree was a large green bird, some type of parrot, which as if on cue let out a blood curling “Ouch” for my benefit. “See, it is just a bird, nothing to worry about,” she lied.

I left that day with half a numb face and one less tooth. On the drive back to Greenfield, me with a throbbing head and disillusioned as I thought it was just a bird screaming, so I was safe. Total realization came when my dad said, “You know those birds just imitate what they hear.” I only mention this because in about an hour I have an appointment, which I am sure will mean a bad tooth extraction, and I hear the screams of a bird in my head.

Take care. Peace.

Steve Wilson
Steve Wilson
King City and Greenfield columnist Steve Wilson may be reached at [email protected].

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