NPR logo Beyond the Grave, a Morbid Tale

Beyond the Grave, a Morbid Tale

The Cremation of Sam McGee [#]

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Tuesday's Pick

  • Song: "The Cremation of Sam McGee"
  • Artist: Johnny Cash
  • CD: Personal File
  • Genre: Spoken Word

A relentlessly prolific performer, Johnny Cash recorded stacks of unreleased tapes during his legendary career. Unearthed shortly after Cash's 2003 death, a batch of recordings marked "Personal File" turned out to contain an assortment of songs — hymns, covers, tributes to family friends, and more — that Cash had recorded solo and acoustic sometime in the '70s.

Johnny Cash's personal archives yield a treasure trove of unreleased recordings. Al Clayton/Sony Music Archives hide caption

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Al Clayton/Sony Music Archives

Forty-nine of those tracks have been compiled on a two-disc set titled Personal File, and the joy of the collection lies in its affable straightforwardness, as Cash calmly but solemnly introduces the occasional song with a plainspoken anecdote about its origin. Personal File works best as a cumulative experience, but its standout moment finds Cash reading the riveting, darkly funny Robert W. Service poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee."

Service's early-20th-century gem — the story of an ill-fated Yukon gold-miner and the fate of his last remains — finds its match in Cash, who lends "The Cremation of Sam McGee" the gravitas it requires. Personal File benefits immeasurably from Cash's spoken-word song introductions, so it makes sense that its finest moment highlights his enormous talents as a speaker. It's virtually impossible not to hang on his every word.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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