Rosanne Cash has a new album on which she sings one of the most famous lines in country music: "The lights in the harbor don't shine for me." That's from the Hal David and Paul Hampton classic, "Sea of Heartbreak." Many artists have recorded the song in the past half-century, and Cash recently sat down with NPR's Steve Inskeep to discuss its history and significance.
courtesy of the artist
Rosanne Cash is just one in a long line of great performers to record "Sea of Heartbreak."
Cash's new album is titled The List — a reference to a list of timeless songs made for her decades ago by her father, Johnny Cash.
"I was out on the road with him, he mentioned a song while we were riding on the tour bus, and I said, 'I don't know that one,' " Cash says. "And he mentioned another, and I said, 'I don't know that one either, Dad,' and he got very alarmed. I was so steeped in The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield, and he thought I was missing something essential about my own musical genealogy. So he spent the rest of the day making this list."
"Sea of Heartbreak" is on that list. The song's first recording, by the country star Don Gibson, came in 1961.
"I think he was a bit tortured," Cash says. "And he had somewhat of a difficult life, and all of his experience, and his longing and his own heartbreak is really apparent in his vocals."
The song is a rare successful example of a tricky songwriting device: the extended metaphor.
"It uses a metaphor, and it keeps that metaphor all the way through, and many songs that try to do that kind of, you know, fall over into kitsch," Cash says. "This song starts with that metaphor, of sailing on the Sea of Heartbreak, and it uses it to absolute perfect effect — you know, 'The lights in the harbor don't shine for me.' Oh! It just breaks your heart."
Johnny Cash himself interpreted the song, in a notably up-tempo version.
"I always thought his version was a little aggressive," Rosanne Cash says. "You know, he was recording with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and I think maybe he was a bit too energized by them."
On The List, Cash performs the track as a duet with Bruce Springsteen.
"I couldn't find anyone good, so I got Bruce," Cash jokes. "You know, I wanted to do the song as a duet. I thought maybe there is a 50-50 chance that Bruce will do it, but he doesn't do that many duets. But he said yes right away, and of course he knew the song; he's very steeped in country and roots music. Bruce — who knew he was such a good country crooner? We made this song, I think, even more introspective than the Don Gibson version."
What does Cash think her father might have thought of her rendition?
"I think my dad would have been so proud," she says. "You know, I spent my life as a songwriter, sometimes pushing away this music. And I wish he could see me embrace it so fully."