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Discovering Value in a Lost Life: Johnny Cash Sings Sunday Morning Coming Down

Updated on January 15, 2021

Brooding Song - Take Two

Equal parts cautionary tale and journey of self-discovery, the classic country song ''Sunday Morning Coming Down'' puts forth lyrics truly capable of making the listener stop, think about, and reflect on the lyrics accompanying the melodic instruments that bring it to life.

Johnny Cash was not the first singer to record the song ''Sunday Morning Coming Down''. Some might even argue he is not the best singer to offer a rendition. Kris Kristofferson wrote the lyrics and recorded the song, although he was not the first. Ray Stevens originally released the debut 45 of the tune. Many have covered it since. No matter how many talented singers try their hands and voices with the lyrics, few will argue that Johnny Cash is the singer who made the song famous.

Emotional Fusion and the Songs of Johnny Cash

The strangeness of the song is reflective of the utter desolation, and sadness found within its lyrics. Perhaps these traits are what made the song perfect for Johnny Cash. Cash was not a bubblegum country singer by any means. He was a deep, philosophical, and, yes, troubled man.

Once you realize this, then you might find it perfectly understandable why such a dreary song with an ironically upbeat tempo would be included as a perennial song during his live shows. While the lyrics are precisely downbeat, the song is a tale of redemption. Redemption was a common theme among Johnny Cash's material.

Among the greatest skills, Johnny Cash possessed the ability to put emotion into a song and a performance. Cash did not create contrived feeling. Nor did he present an egotistical air of showing self-importance masquerading as philosophical depth.

With Johnny Cash, there is always sincerity in the lyrics. The sincerity made you want to listen to the song even if the impossible to ignore lyrics took you to a place you may not necessarily wish to go emotionally.

The Dreary Sunday Morning of the Narrator

The song allows us to observe, from a distance, the dreary life of a man who has fallen on hard times spiritually.

In the morning, he wakes up with a massive hangover that is so strong that he cannot hold his ''head in a way that does not hurt'' clearly shows the previous night was (yet another) bender. This is not a new occasion for our anonymous narrator. Events along these lines have been commonplace for him for quite some time.

Having a beer for breakfast and then ''another for dessert ''is likely an indication of alcoholism. The routine this person suffers through every day is hardly an easy one, yet it is one that he has become quite used to. His routine is dreary and boorish, but it seems he has made an uneasy peace with accepting things.

Or has he?

The Perennial Prison of the Mind

If he were used to his place in the world, he would likely no longer feel the pain of loneliness that makes him wish he could forget. The excesses of alcohol and cigarette smoking seem intended to change a state of mind. No one who feels good about himself is going to want to change an emotional or psychological state.

What is most unfortunate is that negativity and pain become commonplace, so do the steps required to nullify the negative feelings. Smoking, drinking, a losing himself in (likely) sad songs the night before is a road traveled once again that the lost man neither enjoys nor desires to venture away from. He has become a cog in an ever-turning wheel of a life that once saw better days.

His state of mind has influenced his actions or, more accurately, his perpetual state of non-action. State a mind plays a role in everything. Where the mind remains, the body can aimlessly follow or, worse, drift. Upon listening to the lyrics, you can clearly tell that the narrator knows he has done wrong. There is a sense of regret in his voice, although he has settled into his miserable way of life. Now, he has allowed his mind to solidify the prison he has created for himself.

''Fumbling through a closet to find the cleanest dirty shirt'' and ''stumbling down the stairs to start the day'' is not exactly some who cares about life. He has let himself go, and now this is reflected in the odious way he cares (or does not care) about himself. If he makes a wrong impression on others, so be it. What happens happens.

There can come the point in a person's life where existence becomes nonexistence and becomes the sad march to the end of one's time. Certainly, life does not have to be this way, but some have resigned themselves to doing so.

One of the unique aspects of Johnny Cash's means of singing the song's opening is he captures such a melancholy complacency to the narrator. We can truly feel the loss, boredom, regret, and hopelessness that makes this a song that nearly drifts into irreversible despair.


Walking Out the Door for Spiritual Renewal

In the second half of the song, Cash can reverse things immensely and turn a song about loss and despair into something about becoming reawakened.

Once the narrator does stumble out the door to start his day, a new day truly is upon him, although he never expected things to turn out as such.

While some fall by the wayside of life and into a hopeless chasm, others are only there temporarily. An impetus is required to get them out of their awful funk. How low this can take can be anyone's guess as the person suffering through life's pain does not know. More likely, the narrator of the song, like those who his character is based, feels life at present is what it is and will always be reflective of their current state.

Then something happens that changes everything and, mercifully, for the better. In the latter half of the lyrics, the narrator experiences a much-needed self-revelation.

Stumbling out of his home, the narrator sees a man playing with his laughing daughter at a park swing set. Bemused by this, he continues onward until hearing the sounds of a choir in a church. Immediately, he hears church bells that echo ''like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.'

The sensory impact of sights and sounds take the man back to a time when he was happier, and this impact on his senses reminds him of when he was alive. The truth here is these sounds were always around him. He denied himself the ability to stop and listen to and feel them. His prison was one of his makings.

The Cash Factor

The lyrics should never be removed from how Johnny Cash sings them. There is a slow build where you can feel uncertainty in Cash's voice how the narrator is completely caught off guard by the sounds he had once ignored. The voice's tempo slowly changes to guilt to joy and then to newfound acceptance thanks to the believable emotion Cash infuses.

There are a few reasons why Sunday Morning Coming Down is such a classic. The themes in the work are timeless and ring true. A sense of hope closes out what commenced as a tale of woe and despair. The great voice and feeling of the equally great Johnny Cash create the auditory equivalent of actually being in the narrator's heart, mind, and soul.

A somber lesson appears in all three places.


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