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  • Photo Lauren Zazzaro Jess Kelleher

    October 24, 2018

    The Johnny Cash Experience - Beyond the Music

    The Johnny Cash Heritage Festival, held in small rural community of Dyess, Ark. where Cash spent much of his boyhood, attracts some of the most ardent followers of the country music icon. The three-day festival features speakers talking about his life and legacy, documentaries, food and arts and craft vendors representing the region, and of course, music by and inspired by Cash.

    Two of his newest fans who took part in the 2018 festival in mid-October were Le Moyne senior communication majors Jess Kelleher (on left above) and Lauren Zazzaro. The pair presented papers at the festival, which was sponsored by Arkansas State University. The students, whose trip was funded in part by the College's Student Research Committee, are the only students to ever present at the festival.

    The pair worked with Professor Mike Streissguth to submit research proposals for the festival; they heard in July that their proposals had been accepted and worked for several months to finalize their presentations. Streissguth, whose documentary "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison" was shown at the festival, is a noted Cash biographer and recognized as one of the nation's leading experts on the singer.

    Dr. Ruth Hawkins, Zazzaro, Kelleher and Professor Streissguth, in front of Cash's boyhood home.

    Kelleher's project involved an analysis of Johnny Cash's song “I Got Stripes” compared to the book by inmate and author Eldridge Cleaver titled Soul On Ice, while Zazzaro compared the Cash's song "Drive On" with Stanley Kubrick's movie Full Metal Jacket.

    "We had a great crowd during our presentations who engaged in conversation with us regarding our respective topics," said Kelleher. "Among the individuals we met was Mr. AJ Henson who grew up and went to school with Johnny Cash. We spoke to Mr. Henson by phone during the Johnny Cash and American Culture course and he had a lot of interesting stories to share with us."

    The students did much more beyond presenting their work. They visited Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., where Johnny Cash recorded his first songs, enjoyed a live concert headlined by Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss and hosted by Cash's son John Carter Cash, and toured the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, Ark. and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

    Zazzaro, Joanne Cash, Kelleher and Joanne's husband Dr. Harry Yates

    "The experience was amazing. We got to meet Joanne Cash who is one of Johnny's remaining siblings and her husband and were also given a personalized tour of Johnny's childhood home by the director of the festival, Dr. Ruth Hawkins of Arkansas State." said Zazzaro. "While screening Professor Streissguth's film at Rhodes College, we met former Le Moyne Dean Barron Boyd and his wife Carol. So the Le Moyne connection runs even into the south, and they were great people to talk with about school, post-grad plans and the Le Moyne experience."

    Though their knowledge of the music legend prior to taking Streissguth's American Culture and Johnny Cash class last year varied, they have quickly come to appreciate him and his long journey from Dyess to stardom. "Cash didn't grow up rich, he worked the cotton fields with his family," said Kelleher. "I find his songs about this time in his life to be among his best work, regarding the great storytelling ability Cash is known for."

    "Never would you think a country music icon would come from such humble beginnings," said Zazzaro. "He truly is an example that you can still be successful and pursue a dream no matter where you come from. That I think that's what most inspiring for me."

    Learn more:
    Communication & Film Studies
    Meet Professor Michael Streissguth
    Student Research

    Category: Student Voices