Johnny Cash and Philosophy: A local band reunites to tour behind its frontman’s philosophy book

“I cannot fathom Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, so how can I fathom the great Stephen Hawking?” asks John Huss of the John Huss Moderate Combo in the song “World Is So Bent.” Huss, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Akron who attended graduate school at the University of Chicago in the mid-1990s, wrote the song in response to seeing the film “A Brief History of Time.” In the film, a physicist advances the argument that the more mankind learns about the universe, the more they must be convinced of the existence of a divine being. According to Huss, “World Is So Bent” is meant to be a “reductio ad absurdum” of this physicist’s argument. The song, whose chorus asks, “How can we say that there’s no God? The world is so bent,” argues that imperfections in the universe must then support belief in an imperfect divine being. “It is very much influenced by Hume,” says Huss.

The John Huss Moderate Combo formed in Hyde Park in the mid-1990s. They are reforming this month for a show May 23 at the Elastic Arts Foundation and a show May 24 at Ronny’s. In addition to Huss, the band includes John Greenfield, J. Niimi, and Andrew Frost. In the early days of the John Huss Moderate Combo, the Ex Libris coffee shop in the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library was a social hotspot and playing gigs at open mic night there allowed the band to reach out to a larger audience who came to for the caffeine, not for the music. Alongside other local bands like ADEN, Streganona, and The Country Melvins, the John Huss Moderate Combo played gigs in Hyde Park basements and one particularly memorable gig at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap, opening for comedy troupe Avant-Garfield. Their following outside of Hyde Park was substantial. “Lipchitz,” their 1998 album, was named the number one local album of the year by radio station WXRT and “You’re So Basic” appeared on Local 101, a compilation of local music released by radio station Q101. Fans of artists like Jonathan Richman and the Mekons will find something to appreciate in Huss’s music, which combines the folky with the intellectual.

The occasion for John Huss Moderate Combo’s reformation is the recent release of the book “Johnny Cash and Philosophy,” edited by Huss and David Werther, a faculty associate in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Like the song “World is So Bent,” this book crosses philosophy with popular music. Cash fans all, Huss and several other philosophers have contributed essays exploring the philosophy to be found in The Man in Black’s music. A wide range of material is covered, from Cash’s perception of God to his philosophy of love in his relationship with June Carter. Huss, whose interests are focused on the philosophy of science and ethics, has contributed an essay entitled “Johnny Cash and Justice” that explores institutional justice in Cash’s songs about unjustly treated prisoners such as “Jacob Green,” “Man in Black,” and “San Quentin.” The last section of this essay extends the theme of social injustice to explore Native American rights in the song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” composed by Peter LaFarge and popularized by Cash.

“Johnny Cash and Philosophy” is the thirty-first book in the “Popular Culture and Philosophy” series edited by University of Chicago alum George Reisch and published by Chicago publishers Open Court Books. Begun in 2000, the series aims to bring high-quality philosophy to the general reading public and has included books on topics ranging from Seinfeld to the Atkins Diet to the undead. Huss pitched the idea for “Johnny Cash and Philosophy” to George Reisch after contributing an essay to another book in the series “Monty Python and Philosophy.” The next book in the “Popular Culture and Philosophy” series is called “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy” and will be released in Spring 2008.

The John Huss Moderate Combo performs at 9:30pm on Friday, May 23 at the Elastic Arts Foundation, 2830 N. Milwaukee, 2nd Fl. and at 9pm on Saturday, May 24 at Ronny’s, 2101 N. California Ave.