Saturday, May 15, 2010

Johnny Cash - "God's Gonna Cut You Down" (the song remains the same)

Both Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin had Hall of Fame careers even if they had never hooked up for Cash's American Recordings series. But they did, and the result was nothing short of amazing...

On the surface, Cash & Rubin would seem to be an unlikely pairing: Cash is a born-again Christian from Arkansas and Tennessee who is best known for singing gospel, folk and country; and Rubin is a Jew from Long Island who is best known for producing hip hop and metal bands and founding the seminal record label Def Jam Recordings (with Russell Simmons in 1984).

On further inspection, it is a perfect match: Sun Records was the Def Jam / Def American of its time and Cash certainly lived (invented?) the rock and roll lifestyle. Furthermore, Rubin is renowned for his powerful, stripped-down, spare production style that gets the most out of the artist; and Cash's career had been foundering, in part because the major labels were overproducing his records and trying to make him into something he was not. Cash and Rubin released their first record in 1994, American Recordings, and that was the beginning of a critically and commercially successful string of LPs each of which consisted of originals, re-recording of Cash's early songs, covers and standards.

Released as a single from 2006's posthumously released "American V: A Hundred Highways", "God's Gonna Cut You Down" is Cash's version of the traditional song generally credited as "Run On". The song has been recorded by many different artists and although it is a homily about abandoning sinful ways, it is generally presented as an up-tempo and joyful song -- a New Testament reading, if you will.

Not so with Cash and Rubin -- you could say they give an Old Testament presentation: dark, booming and vengeful. Changing the title from "Run On" captures the shift of emphasis -- "God's Gonna Cut You Down" was always in the lyrics, but it never seemed to be the main point of the song. Now it is, and the song sounds like the wrath of God.

You might (barely) recognize the song from Moby's 1999 LP "Play", where it was titled "Run On" and sampled a 1947 recording by Bill Landford & The Landfordaires (then titled "Run On for a Long Time"). I must have heard this song dozens of times before I even realized they were singing the lyrics "God will cut you down". This song is a typical example of Moby's gift for recontextualizing early recordings (folk, blues, etc.) in an electronica format.

Another notable version is from the Blind Boys of Alabama, from their 2001 LP "Spirit of the Century". This is a more conventional gospel arrangement, probably closer to Moby's source recording from Landford.

There are countless other recordings of this song but this should give a good sampling of the various versions. And as good as these other versions are, Cash and Rubin have pretty much closed the book on this song -- no one else is going to come close.

Johnny Cash: "God's Gonna Cut You Down"

Moby: "Run On", "Run On" (live acoustic version)

Bill Landford & The Landfordaires: "Run On for a Long Time"

Blind Boys of Alabama: "Run On"

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