The first song that leapt to my mind upon learning about the death of Johnny Cash was "Folsom Prison Blues" --- but ironically enough, the only version of that song I know is a cover by Ed Hamell, who performs and records as Hamell on Trial. The second song that leapt to mind was the final track of U2's 1993 album Zooropa --- but ironically enough, "The Wanderer" wasn't written by Cash, but rather by U2's Bono. Clearly, it's past time I got better-acquainted with The Man In Black's work, but I digress.
While "The Wanderer" may not have been written by Cash, it was clearly written for him, and he makes it his own with a vocal performance that never fails to give me chills. What can I say? I'm a sucker for voices that don't fit into the standard "pretty" mold all too common in popular music, and Cash's distinctive deep, gravelly bass-baritone rumble just grabs me. At once harsh and tender, passionate and reserved, it strikes me as made for storytelling, both sung and spoken (and both appear in "The Wanderer"). Rereading that last sentence, it seems trite, almost obvious --- of course Cash's voice was made for storytelling: he made it so, through literally decades of practice. But I digress again.
For me the lyrics to this song evoke several ideas besides the obvious image of the nameless, questing title character and narrator. First, and probably closest to the obvious, is the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, who allegedly wandered the streets of Athens carrying a lit lamp, saying that he was looking for an honest man.
I went out searching
Looking for one good man
A spirit who would not bend or break
Who would sit at his father's right hand
The second thing this song often inspires me to think about is the Black Panthers, whose members used to patrol their communities armed with guns and copies of the United States Constitution. Whether you see this as dangerous vigilante activity or accept their stated purpose of keeping the peace by providing an alternative to the often abusive or negligent police, it's stupendous badassitude no matter how you slice it. The narrator of "The Wanderer", of course, takes a different document as his guide:
I went out walking
With a Bible and a gun
Finally, the very first thought I associate with this song is the comic series Preacher, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, about a small-town preacher named Jesse Custer's quest to find God --- literally, and not for the reasons you might expect. If they ever make Preacher into a movie (or more than one movie, if they've got any sense, but really I'm not sure any film adaptation could do it justice), this song had damn well better be on the soundtrack.
I went with nothing
But the thought you'd be there too
Looking for you...
The word of God lay heavy on my heart
I was sure I was the one...
Yeah I left with nothing
Nothing but the thought of you
I went wandering
Centered, italicized lyrics by Bono, performed by Johnny Cash, reproduced without permission.
As of 12 September 2003, I'm in the process of finding out who owns the copyright on the lyrics to "The Wanderer" and how to obtain permission to reproduce the full text of the song on E2.