Sunday, April 1, 2012

Johnny Cash Sings the Plot of Macbeth

Cash, Johnny [?]. "Dunsinane Prison Blues." Previously unreleased. 1 April 2012.
While engaged in research at the Huntington Library, I found some circumstantial evidence of Johnny Cash's deep devotion to the works of William Shakespeare.

At the Folger Shakespeare Library, I was able to track down, in a box of Johnny Cash's Shakespeareana, a copy of Macbeth with lyrics scrawled on the back flyleaf. They seemed to be in Cash's handwriting, and they seemed to fit the tune "Folsom Prison Blues," but I could not confirm that. I also found the photograph above—a shot of Johnny Cash surprised in the act of reading Macbeth. He was so startled at the photographer's audacity that he dropped the book just before the photographer snapped the picture.

I was beginning to think that I would need to wait until the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville opens to find hard evidence connecting Johnny Cash with Shakespeare, but, in a box I brought back from the Folger Shakespeare Library, I found an eight millimeter film containing a recording and a primitive music video of the song. I'm convinced that it is the Man in Black himself playing and singing, but I'm putting a question mark next to his name out of deference to scholars who think the evidence is still too circumstantial.

This morning, I finally managed to secure worldwide distribution rights to the video. Here, then, is Johnny Cash (?) singing the plot of Macbeth to the tune of "Folsom Prison Blues":

If you're having difficulty making out the lyrics, you can follow along with the transcription below.
Dunsinane Prison Blues
I see those trees a-comin’.
They’re rollin’ up the hill.
And you might say, “Lay off, Macbeth”—
But I never will.
’Cause I’m stuck right here in Dunsinane,
Feeling so forlorn.
But I needn’t not fear no one
Who was from woman born.

The witches tried to tell me
That I should wish for more:
I shouldn’t just be satisfied
To be Thane of Cawdor.
So I stabbed a King in Scotland
Just to seize his throne.
Then I ordered all my subjects
To see me crowned at Scone.

So I threw myself a banquet:
I was a charming host.
I only have one question:
Who invited Banquo’s ghost?
It wasn’t like Thanksgiving—
I behaved like a dunce.
Stand not upon the order of your going—
Just go at once.

Methought I heard a voice cry,
“Macbeth shall sleep no more.”
When Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking,
She just can’t help but snore,
But when I went to see the witches,
They were far too subtle—
Just kept stirring up that cauldron
And saying “Bubble, bubble.”

If I owned Birnam forest—
If that stand of trees was mine—
I’d take them to the witches
And accuse them all of lyin’.
Far from
Dunsinane castle—
That’s where I want to be.
But those trees just keep on moving,
And that’s what tortures me.

Lay on, Macduff!
From my research, I am fairly certain that there are other Shakespeare-related Johnny Cash songs out there. For example, I found these notes hastily scribbled in the margin of Johnny Cash's copy of Henry V:
I cried "O, for a burning Muse of Fire."
I wrote high, high words, but the muse wrote higher.
And it burns, burns, burns, the Muse of Fire.
The Muse of Fire.
We can only hope that a recording of that number comes to light soon.
Links: One year ago today at Bardfilm. Two years ago today at Bardfilm.
In case the embedded video above fails at some point, here's an alternate connection to the same file:


e meritus prauf said...

Sounds to me more like "Folger Lib'ry Blues" by a bored Shakespeare scholar.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, more monster mash than Johnny Cash! This singer has probably never actually heard Johnny Cash sing

Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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