Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny, has had to spend her professional life living up to her history. For the 2014 LP ‘The River & The Thread‘, she used that history and heritage to her advantage. The album won three awards at the 57th Grammy Awards in February 2015, for ‘Best Americana Album’, ‘Best Americana Roots Song’ and ‘Best Americana Roots Performance’, the latter two awards both for ‘A Feather’s Not a Bird‘ from the album.
The song ‘The Sunken Lands‘ can also be found on the album, released following a five year gap after Cash’s previous release, 2009’s ‘The List‘ (which featured a selection of songs from a list of 100 greatest country and American songs given to Cash by her father when she was 18).
Part of the intervening period was spent by Cash and her husband John Leventhal travelling through the Deep South of the United States. They visited places of historical significance, such as Money, Mississippi, where 14 year old African American Emmett Till was abducted, tortured and murdered in 1955, an event which added impetus to the Civil Rights Movement, and sites which have significance more from a cultural perspective, for example the Tallahatchie Bridge, as referenced by Bobby Gentry’s 1967 hit ‘Ode to Billie Joe‘; the bridge that Billie Joe McAllister reportedly jumped off (or at least the replacement for that bridge).
The album focuses on the Mississippi Delta area, in particular an area in Arkansas, known as the Sunken Lands, the area where her father was raised. Cash’s interest in the area was raised when, in 2011 Arkansas State University, having purchased Johnny Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, invited Rosanne to participate in a project to restore the property, and get involved in the fundraising efforts in support of the restoration.
The song ‘The Sunken Lands‘ tells the story of Cash’s grandmother (Johnny’s mother) Carrie Cash, who worked picking cotton and still found the time to raise seven children. Between 1933 and 1938 the New Deal, a series of schemes, public work projects, financial reforms and regulations introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States, was aimed at providing support for farmers, the unemployed, youth and the elderly at the time of the Great Depression. Under the New Deal, the Cash family were provided with a brand new cottage, 40 acres of land and a mule. When they moved into the cottage, there were five cans of paint in the living room.
The song begins “Five cans of paint, And the empty fields“.
It ends “Now her work is done in the sunken lands, There’s five empty cans”.
Multi-talented Leventhal co-wrote the song with Cash and plays guitar, mandolin, bass, drums and organ on the recording. He also produced the album. There’s some great storytelling here, supported by music and instrumentation that works really well with the lyrics to paint a picture of life in this area of the United States at a desperate time for many; a story struggle and hardship.