Monday, July 4, 2016

Alexander Hamilton

New York, NY  Visited October 2103

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

This is the arresting beginning of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s remarkable hip hop musical drama ‘Hamilton’.  The play attempts to capture the life of perhaps the most controversial founding father in American history.  And what a life it was.  Here is Hamilton’s early story as told by the company of “Hamilton - An American Musical” in the the opening song, filmed on stage as a special to the 2016 Grammy's.

"Alexander Hamilton"

Rather than tell Alexander Hamilton’s compelling story in chronological fashion I’m going to sketch it out from some of the prominent themes that resonate throughout ‘Hamilton – An American Musical’

Washington On Your Side

This poor orphan sent to the New York colony by kind benefactors wandered his way into the American Revolution.  He made reputation for himself in the early days of the war as an artillery officer.  A number of commanders saw in the brilliant, energetic twenty year-old the makings of an ideal staff officer, and in 1777 Alexander Hamilton joined George Washington's  staff.  This would begin a lifelong relationship that would define trajectory of the young man’s life.  Under General Washington both chaffed under the strains of administration while also honing his political and administrative gifts.  

Washington gave him the chance to be a war hero at the Battle of Yorktown.  As president, Washington placed him over the new treasury department where Hamilton’s grand and farsighted vision established the economic system that allowed the United States to become the greatest economy in history.  George Washington’s adept handling of the mercurial and polarizing aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s personality allowed both men to forge an enduring friendship and profoundly shape the practical outworking of the new United States.   

Best of Wives and Best of Women

In 1780 Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, whom he would at the end of his life memorably call, ‘the best of wives and the best of women’.  The woman whom he affectionately called ‘Eliza’ gave the orphaned Alexander a home and an extended family he had never known.  Eliza proved to be the steadying influence in Alexander’s hectic, controversial life.  She was the committed mother of their eight children, the manager of his constantly disrupted personal affairs, the steady companion in his defeats, the north star in his lost times.  Perhaps most compellingly, Eliza Hamilton was a woman of deep Christian faith who used her influential position for the good of others and the advance of the Gospel.  It was this deep faith that allowed her to survive the loss of her oldest son in a duel and decades of slanderous accusations against her husband.  But it is the remarkable grace that she extended in the years following the personal crisis and public humiliation of Alexander’s cruel infidelity, the courageous forgiveness that humbled her arrogant husband, that stands as perhaps her greatest spiritual legacy. That she lived the remaining fifty years of her life after the tragic death of Alexander active for good in the world and committed to the best ideals they shared is a testimony to a truly exceptional woman. 

Like You’re Running Out of Time

Perhaps the dominant aspect of Alexander Hamilton’s character was an inner drive that compelled him forward throughout his life. At times it produced astounding feats of human achievement – like creating an unprecedented national economic system to support a constitutional government of the likes that the world had never seen.  It led him to write volumes of papers, pamphlets and speeches, bringing brilliant and compelling arguments to bear on almost any topic that got his attention.  He has been called by one historian, ‘the nation’s first blogger’.  At times, however, the drive was fueled by a relentless campaign to protect and burnish his personal reputation, leading him to actions that were misguided at best and ultimately tragic for himself and others. Hamilton’s unconscionable adultery and the inexplicable attempt to defend his honor at the expense of his marriage in the Reynolds Pamphlet shows the deep character flaws that ran concurrent with his unquestioned talents.  It was obsessive drive to defend and promote his reputation that led Alexander Hamilton to the morning of July 11, 1804 and his fateful duel with Aaron Burr on the cliffs of Weehauken overlooking the Hudson River.  Hamilton’s deep-seated inability to let slights pass, to step back and consider his actions where his honor was challenged was his lifelong and ultimately life-defining flaw.  

Bitter ideological rivals - Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson and Hamilton Rap Battle

Perhaps no one captured these two sides of Alexander Hamilton’s ambition better than Benjamin Franklin.

“He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”

Forgiveness.  Can you Imagine?

Alexander Hamilton was a man of towering intellect, unwavering patriotism, and deeply entrenched personal pride.  But what was the state of his soul?  The philosophical grounding of the American Revolution was fueled as much by Enlightenment humanism as anything else.  Yet our founding Fathers wrestled with the question of where God fit in it all.  Some, like Thomas Jefferson, seemed to revel in the man-centered rationalism that was sweeping through Europe at the time.  Others, like George Washington, seemed to straddle both worlds, consciously honoring the God of Christianity without clear statements of trust in Jesus Christ.  Where was Alexander Hamilton in all this?  We know that in his youth he ascribed to the Reformed tradition of protestant Christian belief.  It seems that his public life and published words seemed to offer little evidence of what would be considered an evangelical belief in the Gospel.  But we also know that in his later years he was returning to the faith of his youth.  The tragedies in his life and his hard experience in the world had pressed on his heart in his last few years.  He witnessed the robust evangelicalism of his wife and longed to see what happened to her happen to himself.

If it is true that the best place to look for the state of one’s soul before God is in the final conscious moments before death, then we have a pretty good idea of where Alexander Hamilton placed his trust.  In the hours after the duel with Aaron Burr that left him mortally wounded, Hamilton wanted more than anything to receive the Lord’s Supper.  Unable to obtain it from his Episcopal priest he asked for his Presbyterian minister-friend John Mason to give him communion. Mason wisely engaged the dying but coherent man as to the reason he fixed on this one desire.  As biographer Ron Chernow lays it out from eyewitness accounts, Mason sought to ascertain the state of Alexander Hamilton’s faith. Here’s some of that account.

“Aside from his strongly protective feelings toward his family, Hamilton was preoccupied with spiritual matters in a way that eliminates all doubt about the sincerity of his late-flowering religious interests...  Mason tried to console Hamilton by saying that all men had sinned and were equal in the Lord’s sight. “I perceive it to be so,” Hamilton said. “I am a sinner. I look to His mercy.” Hamilton also stressed his hatred of dueling: “I used every expedient to avoid the interview, but I have found for some time past that my life must be exposed to that man. I went to the field determined not to take his life.” As Mason told how Christ’s blood would wash away his sins, Hamilton grasped his hand, rolled his eyes heavenward, and exclaimed with fervor, “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.””
In drawing on his own late blooming faith Alexander Hamilton was able to also bring spiritual care to his wife in his dying moments.  To comfort her, Hamilton kept intoning the one refrain he knew would soothe her troubled spirit above all others: “Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian”


Alexander Hamilton did not live to repudiate dueling.  He died as a casualty of the ritual on July 11, 1804.  He was 49 years old; the only prominent founding father not to make it into his elderly years.  He is buried in the churchyard of Trinity Church, in the heart of the Wall Street district that owes its existence to the far-sighted economic ideas of the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States.  

For years Trinity Church was a tourism curiosity due to its fictional role in the movie National Treasure.  But with the Miranda’s musical, Trinity Church has a whole new status as a pilgrimage destination.  I visited Hamilton’s grave on a trip to a conference in New York. 

Trinity Church - Unfortunately when I visited the Hamilton grave area
was under renovation

Alexander Hamilton with Eliza's crypt in
the foreground

Note that the tombstone indicates Alexander Hamilton died when he was 47,
most modern historians place it at 49, due to recent research
into his early life.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Johnny Cash

Nashville, TN   Visited April 2013

A post about the legendary Johnny Cash.  There is a personal dimension to this one because it turns out that I am related to the Man in Black.  Details at the bottom of this post.  But first the story.

In doing research on Johnny Cash I realized there is no way I could capture his extraordinary life and art in a blog.  So I thought I’d do something different.  I’ll give some basic bio, then I’ll:  
  • Give 10 remarkable/curious/notable facts about the man.
  • Give five insightful quotes from or about him.  
  • Give my list of the top five Johnny Cash songs.

Little J. R. Cash

Johnny Cash was born February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas.  The Cash family were poor cotton farmers but had a strong Pentecostal background.  The death of Cash’s older brother in a sawmill accident at 15 had a profound effect on him and was often referenced in his story for the rest of his life. Cash served in the air force in Germany in 1950-54.  Upon his discharge in 1954 he married his first wife Vivian.  They had four daughters.  Was signed initially signed  to Sun Records by Sam Phillips in 1955.  His first major hit was I Walk the Line. He rose to prominence as both a country music star and popular music personality in the 1960's.  Serious drug and alcohol addiction nearly destroyed him in the mid sixties, and his erratic behavior cost him his first marriage.   

Cash married June Carter in 1968 and they had one son.  From 1969-71 Johnny hosted The Johnny Cash Show on CBS, where he brought performers from the country and pop words together to perform.  While his own recording career would taper down over the next quarter century, Cash collaborated with artists across the pop music performance in making music and live performances.  Johnny quit performing due to a degenerative nerve disorder in 1997.  He and June lived as revered elders in country music until June’s death in May 2003 after 35 years of marriage.  Johnny died less than four months later on September 12, 2003.  He was 71.   The Cash’s are buried at Hendersonville Memorial Gardens in Hendersonville, TN, just outside Nashville. 

Johnny Cash is the only performer elected to the Country Music, Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame.

Ten Remarkable/Curious/Notable Facts about Johnny Cash – In Chronological Order.

#1  Johnny Cash’s legal name at birth was J. R. Cash – no names, just initials.  He took the name Johnny when he enlisted in the army. 

#2  Cash was taught the guitar by his mother who wanted him to sing gospel music.  He began writing and singing (in a high tenor voice) when he was twelve.

#3  Cash was the first military radio operator to decode the news that Joseph Stalin had died. 

#4  On December 4, 1956 Johnny Cash was in the Sun Studio in Nashville.  In a nearby recording room Carl Perkins was recording a song backed on piano by Jerry Lee Lewis.  A young singer named Elvis Presley dropped in and the four commenced a jam session of mostly gospel tunes that was later released as “The Million Dollar Quartet”.

The Million Dollar Quartet - from left to right,
Lewis, Perkins, Presley, Cash
    #5  Johnny Cash began wearing his signature black suit early in his career primarily because it was easier to keep looking clean on tour.  He became known as ‘the Undertaker’ because of it.

    Early J.C with signature guitar pose

    #6  In 1965 Cash was driving his truck in Los Padres National Forest in California when it caught fire.   The fire destroyed over 500 acres of forest on two mountains.  When asked why it happened, Cash told a judge, "I didn't do it, my truck did, and it's dead, so you can't question it."

    #7  Johnny Cash first performed at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956.  In 1965 he was banned from the Opry because he smashed all the flood lights with a microphone stand.  He was reinstated a few years later.  

     #8  In 1983 Johnny Cash played a heroic sheriff in the movie, Murder in Coweta County.  Andy Griffith played the bad guy in the movie. 

    C+ Christian with Billy Graham

    #9  In 1986 Cash published his only novel – a fictionalized account of the Apostle Paul entitled “Man in White”.  The idea came out of his religious conversion; a born again experience that had a lasting effect on his life even as he struggled to live consistently as a follower of Christ.   He once said he graded himself a  C+ as a Christian.

    #10  Johnny Cash recorded sixty songs in the last four months of his life.
      He finished the final track for his last album a week before he died.

    Johnny and June Carter Cash

    Five quotes by or about the Man in Black

    “The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars.” - Johnny Cash

    “How well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between heaven and hell. There is a deep, wide gulf, a chasm, and in that chasm is no place for any man” - Johnny Cash

    Dylan and Cash - they were neighbors in Woodstock, NY
    in the mid 1960's
    "He is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English.  Listen to him, and he will always bring you to your senses.” - Bob Dylan

    “He showed me his house, his ranch, his zoo (seriously, he had a zoo in Nashville), his faith, his musicianship.  He was more than wise. In a garden full of weeds — the oak tree.” - Bono

    "Johnny, I want to send out a big thanks for the inspiration.  You took the social consciousness from folk music, the gravity and humor from country music, and the rebellion out of rock and roll, and taught all us young guys that not only was it all right to tear up all those lines and boundaries, but it was important." – Bruce Springsteen

    Five favorite songs. 

    The Highwaymen (L to R):  Willie Nelson, Waylon
    Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson - 1980s
    #5 A Boy Named Sue:  What was initially as a novelty song released on the B side of the San Quentin single, it became his only top ten pop hit.  This is one of the first records I bought and I had memorized the entire song when I was about 9 years old.  I still know more of it than I should.  Here’s the live version from Cash's San Quentin Prison show in 1969.

    # 4 Folsom Prison Blues: The Man in Black’s signature prison song – raw lyrical approach almost unique in country music history – or pop and rock history for that matter.  Cash said that he wrote the song while in the military in 1953.  Here’s a live performance from the early 70's.   

    #3 Hurt:  Cash’s version of Trent Reznor’s song was recorded just months before he died in 2003.  Cash got permission from Reznor to change some of the lyrics to make it more consistent with his Christian faith.  The video of the song (pardon the quality) is considered one of the greatest music video’s of all time.  

    #2 I Walk the Line:  Johnny wrote this song early in his career and it became the song for which he is best known.  Here is a version recorded on the Tex Ritter Show when Johnny was 23 – pre ‘Man in Black’ days.  

    #1 Ring of Fire:  My favorite Cash song – a beautiful melody and haunting lyrics.  Johnny came up with the idea of using the mariachi horns.  This easy-going acoustic version with Willie Nelson is really nice. 

    Johnny's gear at the Country Music
    Hall of Fame

    One bonus video worth checking out is Cash's performance of Big River at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.  Among the cast of thousands onstage for the jam are Keith Richards, John Fogarty, Steve Cropper, the Edge and Carlos Santana - a testament to the wide reaching impact of the art of Johnny Cash.  

    From Johnny Cash's last performance - July 5, 2003 - Hiltons, VA

    I visited the Cash family plot in Hendersonville, outside of Nashville with my friend Ian.  It’s a typical municipal cemetery and the plot area is near the parking lot – a remarkably normal location for such a famous artist.  

    Your blogger with Johnny's plaque at the Country
    Music Hall of Fame in Nashville

    At the Cash family plot
    Cash's self-selected inscription captures his
    conflicted desire to glorify God and the
    relentless grace that never let him go.

    Family connection:  My brother John has been doing research on our family history and discovered in the process that our family and Cash’s family were related in north Georgia in the 1800’s. Cash developed an interest in his family history later in life and therefore a good deal of information is available about that part of our family. 

    Officially, we are fifth cousins twice removed. We share common Scottish roots. Our ancestors immigrated to Salem, Massachusetts in the 1670’s,settling in Virginia not long afterward. Later sons fought in the revolutionary war and as a result received land grants in north east Georgia in the late 1700’s. Johnny Cash’s great-grand-father moved from Georgia to Arkansas in 1850 where Johnny was born about 82 years later. Unfortunately for us the Cash line took most of the the musical talent and the nice full head of hair. 

    John has created a beautiful web site about the family history based on his research.  At one time you could find a Farmer or a Fricks or a Cash almost anywhere in North Georgia.  But times change and people move on.  Its good to have a family heritage collected and accessible for future generations.  You can check the site out at Leatherwood Creek.