Christmas Classics: The Yule Log Edition
I never thought that Johnny Cash could ever become kitsch. After all, he is the Man in Black, the patron saint of the disenfranchised and hurting and the bad ass country boy jamming an angry middle finger at the camera. I grew up listening to Cash singing to cheering prisoners and sullen guards, and then later turning a classic industrial rock song on its head. How on earth could this icon of morality—this Original EMO master—possibly be turned into sweet fluff?
By having him sing Christmas songs on a video that loops Christmas imagery continuously. At first I was really excited to get the DVD Christmas Classics: The Yule Log Edition (featuring Johnny Cash). I know from years of watching and reading documentaries and interviews with Cash, he always loved gospel and church centered music, but not many people felt he had the quality voice to justify a full album of gospel. It was exciting to see that the man I have admired for so long actually did sing the songs he loved, even as nobody thought he could do it. I thought the DVD would be further evidence of his persistence and toughness.
But when I got the DVD, I was surprised to find out that the "video" is actually a series of twelve songs sung by Cash set to "scenes" of Christmas. That is, after you press play on your DVD player, you can hear all the songs—and then choose between three different "scenes" to set your television to while the songs play. The first scene is a picture of a burning yule log, the second is a picture of the interior of a dimmed cottage with a lit Christmas tree and the third is the cabin from the outside at night.
There are no clips of Cash singing or doing anything else on the video. I was expecting clips, so I admit to being disappointed when I first realized what the video was. This realization also left me vaguely insulted. My grandmother has video on loop of a fireplace burning (only hers had no music to go with it). How could they turn Johnny Cash—the Man in Black—into the kitsch my grandmother would find "cute?"
But as I listened to the songs and switched the scenes back and forth, I realized something. My grandmother grew up listening to Johnny Cash, just like I did. She is actually from Appalachia, a region not too far from where Cash grew up. And before Cash was a rebel wearing black, he was a country singer. A country singer with roots in the church and from a community that didn't have much and wouldn't trust something as shifty as a computer or DVD player. To my grandmother—this type of video isn't kitsch. It just is.
When I watched/listened to the video in that light, I was able to relax and really hear what was important; the music. The video box cover does not say what year these songs are from, but from the sounds of it, they are from Cash's early years, before booze and drugs took over his voice. His voice never sounded stronger, earthier or more sure of itself. He soars through long notes and is comfortably rich in quiet moments. There is perhaps a bit too much sing/talking (where there is music playing in the background as Cash talks through a part of the song); two of the songs have long sections of sing/talking that seem to act as a needless distraction to the music. The opening song ("I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"), however, was particularly strong and made me really excited to listen to the rest of the video.
Lovers of the Man In Black may not be able to stomach this video. The songs are not rebellious, or even all that interesting in a certain sense. They are standard Christmas music you would hear in a church. I think that even as Cash's voice is glorious in its clarity, it also could be described as boring. He is singing because he loves the music and to prove he can sing. And although that's interesting for fans who know and care about his historical fights with the music industry, for more casual fans, they will probably want to stick to Cash's more traditional music. Older fans like my grandmother will definitely enjoy the connection of a country voice to Christmas church music—and those who like kitsch will get their socks knocked off.
For those Cash fans who are like me, who have missed Cash since he died in 2003, it was just really great to hear an old friend again.