Looking Back at the Man in Black by Clare Welsh

Editor Carrie Ivy, Music, August 26th, 2016

"I don't trust people--singers or otherwise--who don't admit their failures..."

Looking Back at the Man in Black by Clare Welsh essay


I was sitting cross-legged to preserve warmth, mint tea steaming on the table, when the priest came to the door. He wore black shoes, a black hat, and a black coat that billowed behind him like crow wings.

I let Dad answer the door. I hadn’t been to church for years and I felt awkward, like I had failed someone. I didn’t know who. I was still getting used to the adult paradox of failure: The notion that even hard-working people eventually, inevitably fail.

“It’s good to see you,” Mom told the priest. “Tea?”

“Thank you, but I can’t stay long,” the priest sat at the table. His silver crucifix was bright against his black shirt. “I just wanted to stop by, see how you’re doing.”

Mom was quiet for a moment. She looked out the window, then back at the priest. “I just want it to be over.”

He gave her his full attention; the kind even lovers don’t give each other, the active observation that’s disappearing with newspapers, pay phones, and priests. “Shall we pray?”

We took hands, formed a circle. The priest’s hands where firm and soft.  Mom had blue, protrusive veins, two gold rings.  Dad had cracked and calloused skin from guitar strings; from the handle he gripped to shovel snow.

“God, may you grant the surgeons strength and clarity. May their skills be your instruments.” The priest prayed with eyes closed. Everyone did except me. I wasn’t used to asking God for things.

“Grant this woman strength, your healing grace,” continued the priest.

I was glad for the warm hands. Even in May, the Pennsylvania chill cut through my flannel. It gets in your bones, Mom always said.

“Amen,” said the priest. When he left, we watched him walk the path under the pine branches until he crossed the street into gray afternoon, a crow back to sky.

I hugged my parents, Mom a moment longer. She got in the car with Dad and they drove to Pittsburgh. Then, the next day, a man cut her chest open and pulled a valve from her heart.


Meanwhile, I got drunk. Had sex. Played the same Black Sabbath riff for an hour on Dad’s old Martin. Did anything but think about the knife that was entering the most important woman in my life. I wish I had thought about it, really. I wish I wasn’t afraid of embracing silence and pain, two tough teachers. When I finally braved a moment of stillness, it was to write and listen to Johnny Cash’s Man in Black, the 1971 album that additionally features the harmonics of June Carter.

Sitting at the old family desk–faded brass filigree, a drawer of paper, pennies, and Polaroids–I stopped writing and listened.  I played “Look for Me” again.  It was a simple, child-like tune about finding God in dirty, dingy places. Feeling Godless, I stared into what I was feeling as if it were the eyes of a growling dog. The song started in a minor key and, while oscillating optimistic, remained anchored by a great sadness.  You got the feeling John and June were singing to cheer themselves up.

Maybe they were.  Man in Black was released in a time of national squalor, the Vietnam War. The album contains numerous political references, the title track both a bold protest and a proclamation of identity: “Until things are brighter, I’m the man in black,” sings Cash, referencing his iconic drab costume. I guess things never got brighter, because Cash stuck to black for the rest of his career.

A frequent traveler to the swinging, gun-slinging country of the Cash Discography, I had often glossed Man in Black. I was more a Folsom Prison, Live at San Quinton listener. The Cash I knew best was the greaser flicking off the camera in the pop photograph reprinted on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and posters made for college dorms.

A Brown liquor, white drugs kind of guy.

And yet: only that kind of guy could “take me to church” in the tradition of true Gospel, transcend physicality and carve out a spiritual space. I don’t trust people–singers or otherwise–who don’t admit their failures as candidly as their triumphs. I trust Cash because he’s had a hangover. When an upstanding citizen talks to me about God, I hear but don’t listen. When a recovered alcoholic says a few words on the topic, I’m all ears. With people like that, you know God’s not political. He’s personal.

I’m not a religious person, but Cash and Carter could sing about God in a way that actually made me feel something. I’ve failed some people in my life, and I often feel lost, “An Orphan of the Road” like the character in Cash’s ballad. Living in New Orleans, I worked as a live music photographer, a hostess, a writer, a salesperson, a model, a painter–Just about anything I could do to scrape together a living in the quickly-gentrifying city. The work was exhausting, but the effort felt worthwhile. I was in the crux of the American music triangle.  The air buzzed like a steel string.

Still, I missed my family in Appalachia. I was an absent daughter. I had no idea Mom had been seeing a cardiologist, though I should have guessed when she said she quit smoking. After several ER visits, it was determined that a valve in her heart kept pushing fluid into her lungs. Surgery became imperative, the sooner the better. “I’m scared, but I’m ready,” Mom told me over the phone. I was frustrated that I wasn’t there to be strong for the woman who, time and again, had been strong for me.

Before amassing the money to travel the 1,117 miles home, I fumed over what felt like a personal failure. Whatever I was doing, if I don’t have time for my family, I was doing it wrong.

The feeling gnawed on my fingers like a nervous habit. It could make me a real asshole, especially when I drank. Once, bitter in the way that only drunk people can be bitter, I smashed a candle at a bar.  It was one of those tall Jesus candles, the kind usually reserved for shrines.  Like lost spirits, these candles burned and flickered in Marigny dives, reflected in rum bottles, the faces of desperate people.

The sound of shattering glass lingered in the room like a sour chord. I had gone too far. Jesus’s face was under my boot.  His leg had skidded across the floor, under the pool table. One hand had pinged against a shot glass. The bar tender arched an eyebrow, as if to say Really, you gotta drag God into this? before throwing me out. Embarrassed, I never went back.

Like many ballads, “An Orphan of the Road” is ultimately a redemption story. In the last verse, the orphan does a good deed, lighting a match to look a dying man in the eyes. Even the still dark forms of strangers deserve kindness. It’s about time I redeemed myself, apologized to the bartender, bought another Jesus Candle–Christ, they’re only $2.00 at Walgreens.

Maturing into my appreciation of Man in Black, I see acts of love as passing lights in the deep gray night. Country music is steeped in Christian mythology, most of it phony, a reference for the sake of rhyme.  You know the song is honest when the singer has a few bruises, when you feel he’s right there with you, passing the lonely night, the lonely year, the heartbeats knocking at time like God at the door.

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Header image courtesy of the author. Bio photo courtesy of Shelby Ursu.

Clare Welsh writer essay NAILED magazineClare Welsh is a writer, photographer and illustrator based in New Orleans. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Viator, Bayou Magazine, Offbeat Magazine, Words Dance, Pressure Life, and various other publications in print and online. Her book Chimeras is available through Finishing Line Press. For more stories, follow her on Instagram @clarewelsh




Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.