My grandfather’s name was Henry Burkett Powell, called Burkett by his wife of 62 years, Elizabeth, but Pete by most others who loved him, of whom I was certainly one. He grew up in Cottonport, in Meigs Country, Tennessee, on the banks of the Hiwassee River. He was an orphan who led a timid and lonely life as a child, but was always possessed of a keen intelligence and an even keener natural curiosity. He could recount many stories of the construction of the TVA and FDR’s legendary trip to our hometown, Chattanooga, when he stayed at the Read House Hotel. As a youth, he once rode a horse and buggy to Dayton to attend in person the celebrated Scopes Monkey Trial. As an older man, he would listen to local dispatches on a police band radio and drag my teenage mother to fresh crime scenes to question the police on details of the incident.
When I was a boy, he would take me on the first Monday of every month to the Kiwanis Club Travelogue at downtown’s Memorial Auditorium, an event to which he bought season tickets. The Travelogue was his era’s precursor to first-person travel shows on cable channels today—part documentary, part history, part exotic tour to fabled destinations around the globe. The format was always the same: a seasoned raconteur would narrate a slide presentation on a giant screen of his trip to some far-off locale, giving an idea of the architecture, customs, politics, food, amazing sights and quaint pastimes of the place and its people. Many corny jokes were thrown in for entertainment value.
It was like a larger-than-life, Cinemascope version of the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland. Most of the regular crowd of hundreds were senior citizens. I alone lowered the mean demographic by at least half. Despite never having left the United States, the combination of Travelogues, Walter Kronkite and his weekly U.S. News and World Report allowed Pete a point of view on a remarkably vast percentage of the globe.
He passed his curiosity along to me, and I have very distinct memories of six-hour car rides to Florida during which he would quiz me on the capitals of all fifty states. Some of my proudest moments were wowing him in spectacular fashion with my command of international capital cities. He knew them all, but always feigned amazement at my feats. There was something personal and folkloric about the way Pete gleaned his understanding of the world at large from such a humble, stationary perch. He knew not just facts about places, not trivia, but details that seemed rooted in stories and anecdotes. It is a way of passing on knowledge that goes back to cracker barrel conversations in the countryside, to traveling troubadours and scops, and deeper yet—into an ancient, perpetually burnished golden age of firesides and caravans, shamans passing on their wisdom with trembling sticks and memorable rhymes.
It is this sort of epic chronicle of America that Johnny Cash extolled in a kind of niche parallel career on his multiple “Americana” albums of the Sixties. Less political and revolutionary than the songs people remember today, such as “The Man in Black” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” these songs were an attempt to rekindle a nostalgia for folklore and traveler’s tales that, along with murder ballads, formed the roots of country music.
From Sea to Shining Sea is not as fine a record as a whole as his incomparable, devastating Bitter Tears, an album of songs devoted to the American Indian or even Orange Blossom Special. There is something corny and improvisational to his song subjects, his titles (“The Frozen Four-Hundred-Pound Fair-to-Middlin’ Cotton Picker,” a prime example), and his kindly grandfather/crazy-man narration, that makes the record a strange listen and a loveable keepsake. It retains the sense of childhood stories about mythic American figures such as John Henry, Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed and the Bills--Buffalo and Pecos, without the romantic gloss.
All of these songs, believe it or not, are Cash originals.
It is his America, and it makes you imagine what might have occurred if Walt Disney, in his stunningly imaginative commercial ambition, had asked The Man in Black to craft a Sunday night prime-time feature.
It is gentle, tender-hearted and subtle in its praise of typical American virtues and values at odds with a rapidly changing modern culture. It won't make you want to stay up late drinking whiskey, feeling rebellious. And its not angry or scathing enough to make you set the flag on fire. It's one man's fabled fantasy of an idea of a country he admired. Just the right type of travelogue for a lazy afternoon spent warming up the grill...
JOHNNY CASH FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA, 1968, Columbia