When The Man Comes Around:
Johnny Cash and Being-Towards-Death

Much of Johnny Cash’s career could be inscribed within an explicit anticipation of death. Although other recordings come on board as required, my paper uses Cash’s The Man Comes Around, the last of the “American Recordings” fully realized before his own death, as the capstone for a popular and extended analysis of what Heidegger calls being-towards-death. Famously, Heidegger requires hundreds of pages of dense text to argue that everyone’s death is their own, but Cash’s The Man Comes Around, in about 45 minutes, gives a superb poetic treatment to this inevitable theme of contemporary continental philosophy. Like almost no other popular twentieth-century recording artist (with such notable exceptions as Brian Wilson, Matt Johnson, Stephen Jones, and Jimi Hendrix, a claim I support in my text), Cash is aware of how confrontation with one’s own death ultimately leads to an individual appropriation of time, removing it from the objective experience of science (witness “25 Minutes to Go” from Live at Folsom Prison).

Hence, I explore Cash’s fascination with murder ballads and death-row laments as limit situations: in these, Cash dramatically crystallizes a Heideggerian triad consisting of ‘lostness’ in the everyday they-self, the lack of companionship in death (Heidegger’s absence of “concernful solicitude”), and the horrible freedom granted by the certainty of death – a freedom afflicting not only his fictive murderers, but Cash as well, and each of us ourselves. By giving poetic voice to his own death, by stripping from it mere contemplation of the death of others, by treating it as the utmost impossibility of possibility, Cash gives a new voice to a phenomenology of death, and, in Heidegger’s terms, underscores the temporality of existence and its being as authenticity. Thus, while remaining sensitive to the differences between Heidegger and Cash (especially Cash’s religious insights into death, which Heidegger not only leaves out, but explicitly avoids), and eschewing technical vocabulary, this paper uses Cash’s lyrics, his appropriation of others’ music, and especially the vocal timbre of The Man Comes Around (supplemented by other recordings) to illuminate the theme of being-towards-death in the notoriously difficult second division of Being and Time. But far from being an introduction to what some see as the opaque thinking of Heidegger, this paper simply strives to illuminate the philosophical importance of this theme for general readers.