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Story in Johnny Cash: Narrative Point of View and Voice in the Live Prison Albums

By Camryn Bruce

Johnny Cash was a singer and songwriter renowned for his musical discussion of humanity and its social issues, including prison reform (Discogs, Robins). Storytelling exists as a prominent quality in Cash’s music but also as the central focus of narratology, a form of literary theory that considers a narrative’s form, structure, and meaning (Phelen, Fludernik). Narratology generally studies point of view and voice as distinctive features of narration. Cash’s music has not yet been studied through either narratological lens. My critical discourse analysis on point of view and voice in Johnny Cash’s prison albums connects these theoretical avenues. 

The project asks: “What points of view does Johnny Cash employ or address through pronoun usage in his performances? What rhetorical devices establish the voice Cash uses to convey his or another’s point of view? What message(s) does Cash present through his rhetorical conveyance of identity?” My methodology calls for the coding of four prison albums: At Folsom Prison, At San Quentin, På Österåker, and A Concert Behind Prison Walls.

Findings reveal that certain rhetorical devices used alongside first, second, and third points of view advance messages of connection, isolation, and motivation in the albums. Each message elicits discussion about the implied identities of Cash as “author” and the prisoners and album listeners as “audiences.” The study is valuable because it connects separate concepts in narrative theory and also provides insight into Cash’s narrative impact in a text outside of traditional literature.