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The second time proved the charm when it came to getting Johnny Cash's boyhood home in Dyess on the National Register of Historic Places, where it has belonged for some time.

But according to James Gabbert, the bureaucrat who bears the formidable title of National Register Historian: "The original nomination form presented a wealth of information about Cash and his family, and simply needed to be tweaked to justify listing it for that significance. The property has two separate but related and intertwined areas of significance--the association with the FERA [Federal Emergency Relief Administration] and the Dyess colony, and the effect that being a part of that colony had on Johnny Cash's development as an artist."

In the first nomination, it was Johnny's folks who were mentioned first: "Farm No. 266, Ray and Carrie Cash Home (Johnny Cash Boyhood Home.)" But in the second and successfully tweaked nomination, the property was more properly identified as "Farm No. 266, Johnny Cash Boyhood Home." There's still plenty, it seems, in a name, before and after the feds get through with it.

A place was found in the Register for the house under Criterion B, which covers the lives of significant Americans like this native son of Arkansas. To quote professional historian Gabbert: "Currently, there are no properties associated with Cash himself listed in the National Register, although Sun Recording Studio in Memphis is listed. (Cash recorded there in his early days.) While the National Register generally lists properties under B for their association with the productive period of a person's life, an exception can be made if there are either no extant places left to associate with the person, or if you can demonstrate that the place has had a profound impact on the person's formative years. In the case of the Cash boyhood home, I think this has been adequately demonstrated."

Give 'em a happy ending every time, even if it means working around extensive federal requirements for the sake of the deserving, which would certainly include Johnny Cash and please his fans all over the world. And so justice seems to have been done at last, no matter how much legalistic finagling was required.

Happily, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program was able to announce the good news the other day. Mark Christ, who speaks for the program, seems never to have harbored any doubts that this story would come out well. He called having Nomination No. 1 rejected "just a speed bump in the process" that would need only "a little bit of bureaucratic cleanup" before the humble little house where Johnny Cash began his life would be properly recognized. Our thanks and congratulations to all concerned, and many were.

"It's great that the childhood home of one of America's greatest songwriters and entertainers," Mr. Christ proclaimed, "has achieved national recognition and even better that it has been restored so that people can visit it and walk in the footsteps of Johnny Cash."

The word from Ruth Hawkins, who directs Arkansas State University's program of Heritage Sites, says she's "thrilled" about the little house's making the National Register of Historic Places. All of us in Arkansas should share her sense of pride and exaltation. "People who visit this site," she says, "typically leave with the comment, 'Now we understand where his music came from.' Clearly, who Johnny Cash became as a person and as a musician was shaped by his time in Dyess."

Director Hawkins cited two of Johnny Cash's songs in particular as having sprung from Dyess' rich soil: "Five Feet High and Rising" about the flood of 1937, and "Pickin' Time." For our folk hero lived in this house from the age of 3 through high school--formative years indeed.

ASU now owns the house and has proven a good guardian, caretaker and investor in the site, having spent $575,000 to buy, restore, landscape and keep up the property. Not including the outbuildings or other places in Dyess, which lies in Mississippi County.

Johnny Cash regularly spoke of the significance of having lived in Dyess as he matured--and yearned mainly to leave the place for greener pastures. "When we grew up," he once recalled, "it was second nature that we wouldn't live in Dyess when we were grown. It was the aim of every person to get a better job. But if I hadn't grown up there, I wouldn't be what I am now. It was the foundation for what I became."

The story of Dyess is also the story of how Americans resisted the collectivism that some of the more insistent New Dealers of the time were determined to force on farm families, however much they resisted. However simple, generous and believing we Americans, Southerners, and/or Arkansans are supposed to be, we're also as sophisticated, complex and moving as Johnny Cash's country songs can be. A paradoxical people, Americans, and long may we remain that way.


Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 05/09/2018

Print Headline: Arkansas walks the line

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