Two things, music and the passage of time, in the right circumstances seem to smooth the rough edges of one’s memory. So it was pretty easy — sitting in a Dyess cotton field on a spectacular autumn afternoon hearing Johnny Cash Heritage Festival headliners Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss killin’ it — to forget for a moment the rough edges of 1968.
John Carter Cash, show host/producer and son of Johnny and June Carter Cash, said he studied the set lists and song selections from his father’s “1968 banner year” to craft a show that, 50 years later, exemplified his father’s life, career and creative spirit and brought his music back to the very farm fields in which it had its roots. Though some were light-hearted, many of Cash’s songs carried themes of sorrow, trouble and, later on, redemption. Certainly, no one who was a fan of Cash in the ’60s and who attended last month’s festival could help but remember when and where that bass-baritone voice — equal parts of gravel and grit — first hit them where they live.
If the music and the time the show represented smoothed the rough edges of a half-century ago, being “wanded” by event security personnel to get in the gate certainly served to invite a comparison between then and now.
Was there such a thing as being “wanded” to gain entrance to a concert in 1968? After all, 1968 was the year that followed on the heels of 1967’s historic Summer of Love. So it was all sweetness and light a half-century ago, compared to the way we live today, right?
Well, maybe not.
Today we have the continuing nuclear missile threat posed by North Korea and its diminutive 35-year-old dictator, Kim Jong Un, hanging over our collective head. Kim was once called “Little Rocket Man” by President Donald Trump, who threatened him but now says he trusts the North Korean leader. Maybe now that they’ve met and have temporarily at least made nice, our nations’ leaders will talk again soon.
Since he wasn’t born until 1983, we obviously didn’t have to contend with the young and once-bellicose Mr. Kim in post-Summer of Love 1968. True, but there was the small matter of his granddaddy, Kim Il-sung, whose navy fired on and captured our spy ship U.S.S. Pueblo in January 1968, killing a Pueblo crew member in the process. North Korea held Pueblo’s crew until just before Christmas that year. The North Koreans still have the Pueblo, and by many accounts the captured U.S. Navy ship is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the communist country. While we’re now asking that Kim get rid of his nukes, why don’t we ask him to give us back our ship?
And what about the throng of migrants from several nations to our south that zipped across Mexico’s border and in late October is making its way northward toward Texas? Can’t allow them in, the president said, contending that the crowd likely includes criminals and people from the Middle East. We have no idea who might be in there.
Surely, it seems no unscreened, unidentified throng in 1968 would have had the audacity to just waltz up to the very gates of the United States and start making demands as this crowd from Central America planned. But if we think so, then perhaps we forget the Poor People’s March on Washington in May and June of 1968. Some 3,000 people camped on the Washington Mall for six weeks, pressing their demands for economic justice.
The prime mover in that march, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., wasn’t there to lead it. King was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis in April 1968. His death was followed by the assassination in June of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. President Lyndon Johnson had withdrawn from the race in March in the face of growing opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Ultimately, the Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey in their August convention in Chicago, where a rancorous gathering included numerous protests against the war. The angry mood of the convention spilled out into the streets, with bloody confrontations between police and protesters. The previous summer’s message of peace and harmony was already forgotten by some in Chicago.
The Republican nominee, former Vice President Richard Nixon, scored a big Electoral College victory over Humphrey. Nixon carried 32 states and took 301 electoral college votes, but neither candidate won a majority of the popular vote. Arkansas gave its six electoral votes to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who campaigned on a segregationist platform.
So, how did a concert in a cotton field stimulate all this thought about 1968 history
Consider that from 1932 to 1964, the Democrats won seven out of nine presidential elections. Nixon’s election in 1968 reversed the trend. From 1968 until 2004, the Republicans won seven out of 10 presidential elections. The Democrats were back in the White House for two Barack Obama terms, and Republican Trump is now midway through his first term. He, like several of his predecessors including Johnson, Nixon and Obama, inherited a war he didn’t start. Control of the White House may change, but many of the issues facing the person occupying the big chair remain the same, whether it’s 1968 or 2018.
Johnny Cash’s lyrics make me think too hard. Next time, I’ll just focus on the music. And am sorry if I ruined “Folsom Prison Blues” for you.
Paul Holmes is editor-at-large of the Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are those of the author.