I credit my father with my earliest exposure to Johnny Cash. And whenever I hear this song, I end up thinking of him and wrestling with how I feel about him. Because this song makes me feel a genuine affection for him that I don’t normally feel. And something about Johnny Cash’s history and his own problems with the demons of alcohol and drug addiction establishes some kind of crossover connection between my father and myself that leaves me with all of these contradictions.
My father was not an alcoholic or a drug addict. I used to kind of think of him that way when I was much younger, and perhaps he had his days of excesses. But I was definitely not a witness to that. If getting home every day and having a few beers is an alcoholic then I guess there are a lot of alcoholics. My father’s response to everything was to get mad. At least that’s the way I remember it. So when I was in treatment for depression and drug addiction, his response from 2000 miles away and no real contact for a couple years was to get angry. His disapproval mirrored my own of him. I was trying so hard not to be him that my only option was to become him.
I don’t give my father much credit for who I’ve become today. But as I get older, I really relate to a lot of my father’s traits that I would have considered to be defects. He really had a problem with not being able to tolerate people he considered to be idiots. His self-righteousness could be so vehement that he could tip the scales toward making himself wrong in the ferocity of his passion alone. It wasn’t always rage, but that was a trait as well. It seems that I am following his path there as well. He told me once in one of our rare telephone conversations after I had become an adult, “I just don’t get angry anymore.”
And really that is some good advice. It doesn’t really accomplish much. And I can see other areas that I followed his path. I am very generous with my time and expertise. I like doing things with kids. Doesn’t matter if they are my kids or not. My father coached a Little League baseball team when he didn’t have any kids on the team. But one of the biggest influences that he has had on me was music. Specifically 50’s music and Johnn Cash.
Now whenever I hear this song, I can hear my father singing it. I can see the look on his face. He had that same deep baritone voice that I seem to have inherited. His speaking voice slightly vibrated the walls. His yell was like a physical blow. My wife complains that my speaking voice will keep her up from the other side of the house. She can’t hear it, but she can feel it.
The thing I am missing in listening to this song as an mp3 is the static crackling from the stylus on the record player. I can see the heavy brown carpet in the living room. The strange 60’s panelling. The windows open. The sun coming in from this giant window in the front of the house. Maybe it was not giant, everything is bigger in a memory of childhood because you are so small and the world is so big. I remember my father as this hulking figure that had to duck through doorways. I know he was only about 6 feet tall.
It’s funny how I can be so affected by this song. It’s definitely a country song. Like out in the country. My existence has always been more suburban or urban. I never lived anywhere this rural. I know my father didn’t either. I wonder if his affection for things like this was inherited from his father who definitely had some more rural roots. At least from what I know of my grandfather, his roots would be more rural. Desert rural.
Everything I remember about my father is shadows and fog. And while I was having a tough time in life, it was easy to give my father credit for influencing all of those troubles. Now that I am having a better time of it, and I have a son of the same age as I was when my father was still around, maybe it’s time to remember some of the good things about him. I love Johnny Cash. I mean who doesn’t? But I am so grateful that I have Five Feet High and Rising on general rotation in my head because I heard it when I was so young. I guess he isn’t such a bad guy.
I love how relaxed Johnny Cash’s voice in this song. I love how he just writes a song and sings it. I really want to be so much more like Johnny Cash. Post drug addiction of course. As he aged, his sense of wonder was reflected in everything he did. I could be so fortunate as to emulate this. And there is this sort of relaxed irony in the music and lyrics. They are talking about a flood here. No one is relaxed while the water is covering everything they own. It’s this larger metaphor for everything. Look around you.
“How high’s the water mama? It’s 3 feet high and rising.”
Not a damn thing you can do about it. It’s gonna rise as much as it rises. If it rises too much, then we are going to swim or grab something that floats. “Five feet high and rising.”