Cash and Dylan Sing Songs of Remorse: I Hung My Head and I Threw It All Away

“Every one can master a grief but he that has it.” — Shakespeare

Photo by Moritz Schumacher on Unsplash

When Ken Burns’ documentary on Country Music aired on PBS last fall, and Dylan’s Bootleg #15 Travelin’ Through came out featuring Johnny Cash on two of the three CDs, the world was twice reminded of the manner in which these two careers have routinely intersected.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by the author.

Maybe intersecting isn’t quite the right word. The image that comes to mind is the double helix of a DNA molecule in which the two strands corkscrew around each other like a twisted ladder. There’s a sense in which Dylan and Cash have had parallel lives in terms of achievement and fame, sometimes in the foreground and sometimes in the shadows, and frequently connected by those ladder rungs.

It’s apparent from their earliest recordings and footage of making music together that there was a mutual admiration society thing going on between them. They sometimes sang one another’s songs. They clearly seemed to enjoy one another’s company, both on stage or in the studio.

Later in their careers another interesting parallel began to occur. With the inauguration of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, a recycling of countless hours of unreleased material was sifted through as they opened the vault to share with a wider public content that had been left on the cutting room floor. This has provided loyal fans the luxury of being continually surprised by the breadth of his imagination.

Something similar occurred with Johnny Cash when he began recording The American Recordings. Cash, with his resonant baritone, was given the opportunity to take on this project when producer Rick Rubin, better known for heavy metal and rap, saw Johnny Cash perform at the Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary concert in 1992. The deal was this: Cash could do what he wanted and Rubin would produce something exceptional.

This would be a different kind of recycling. Cash would be recycling covers, but adding new dimensions of gravitas to the songs. When American IV came out with Cash doing a cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, an electricity went through the music scene, much like the electrical current that sizzled through Greenwich Village when young Dylan arrived. The net result was that American IV went platinum and many (like us who acquired it) followed up by buying the previous albums in the series, eagerly anticipating those that would follow.

This unlikely marriage — Rubin and Cash — received widespread critical acclaim including multiple American IV platinum and gold awards.

Image for post
Image for post
Public domain.

Sting’s version of “I Hung My Head” is a good song, but — and I mean no disrespect — the cover arrangement and gravelly Cash voice produce a chilling, incomparable effect that is heartbreaking, effectively amping the song to a new high.

It’s a story in song, something both Cash and Dylan excel at. It begins innocently enough. The narrator is out one morning messing around, killing time, until he does something stupid that changes everything.

Early one morning with time to kill
I borrowed Jeb’s rifle and sat on a hill
I saw a lone rider crossing the plain
I drew a bead on him to practice my aim
My brother’s rifle went off in my hand
A shot rang out across the land
The horse, he kept running, the rider was dead
I hung my head, I hung my head

You can imagine the emotions, were this a real life event, your real life accident.

You may not play with guns, but you make mistakes. And not every mistake is deadly, though some can be. They kill something special that was living, and will never live again, perhaps a friendship, or an intimate relationship. So the song continues with an attempt at denial. This can’t be real.

I set off running to wake from the dream
My brother’s rifle went into the sheen
I kept on running into the south lands*
That’s where they found me my head in my hands
The sheriff he asked me why had I run
And then it come to me just what I had done
And all for no reason just one piece of lead
I hung my head, I hung my head

But it is real and there are consequences. In the courthouse he has to explain what he was thinking. Sometimes we don’t even understand our own actions, yet must make an account. He recognizes that he’s orphaned a man’s children and widowed this man’s wife. And he’s sinking inside.

The final verse has an intriguing twist. It’s the day of his hanging, and it proves to be an echo of the event that brought him to this moment.

Early one morning with time to kill
I see the gallows up on the hill
And out in the distance a trick of the brain
I see a lone rider crossing the plain
And he’d come to fetch me to see what they’d done
And we’ll ride together to kingdom come
I pray for God’s mercy ’cause soon I’ll be dead
I hung my head, I hung my head
I hung my head, I hung my head

Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away” is a completely different story, but essentially the same lament. Whereas it’s true he writes songs that blame the woman for this breakup — “I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul” for example; or the harsh “It ain’t me, babe” as sung on Bootleg #5 1975 — in this song he takes full responsibility for the end of this meaningful affair of the heart.

I once held her in my arms
She said that she would always stay
But I was cruel, I treated her like a fool
I threw it all away.

It’s a beautiful song, recorded for Nashville Skyline. I have a friend who says his favorite “sound of Bob’s voice” is here on Nashville Skyline. It was certainly distinctive.

The song evidently remained significant for him as he performed it live nearly fifty times, most recently in 2002, the second tune in a May Rotterdam show.

Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
rivers of grandeur every day
I must have been mad, I never knew what I had
until I threw it all away

There may be critics who call it sentimental pap, but if you’ve ever been hit with it deep, how that which you valued was destroyed by your own hand, this captures it.

The bridge is a basic nod to the all-encompassing and life-affirming notion: “Love is all there is, it makes the world go round…” following up with this admonition born of experience:

So if you find someone that gives you all of her love
Take it to your heart, don’t let it stray
For one thing that’s certain
You will surely be a-hurtin’
If you throw it all away

These were thoughts I had this weekend as I listened to Johnny Cash American Series IV in conjunction with Dylan’s Traveling Through. Both men saw a lot in their lives, both the highs and lows, and both were superb at conveying it in the songs.

Ultimately, it is life itself in the balance. Don’t throw it all away.

* The lyrics Sting wrote and recorded were slightly altered here in the Cash rendition. Sting sang “salt lands” and “stream” as opposed to South lands and sheen.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store