This double-disc collection of unreleased material from Legacy is a rare thing. These tapes are not dead-dog files from Columbia's vaults. Instead, they contain songs Johnny Cash cut at his home studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee between July of 1973 and December of 1983. While closing down the House of Cash studio, museum, and store, John Carter Cash invited Steve Berkowitz and some colleagues to sort through the material and tapes housed in Cash's personal vault. They found some tidy white tape boxes marked "Personal File"; these are those tapes. Some of the songs here are traditional and spiritual songs Cash sang as a boy or heard from his companions. He tells stories to introduce many of the tunes, and these recollections become as important as the songs themselves. When he introduces "Far Away Places," he tells a story about one of his first talent contests (he got only two votes) and reveals that his selection of material cost him first place. You can hear the memories, painful and hopeful, float back through his delivery, spoken and sung. His reading of "Saginaw, Michigan" contains no peremptory tale, but the song says it all, and Cash brings the tune's tragic narrative to life in the listener's present. Likewise, three other Northern-themed numbers -- "When It's Springtime in Alaska," "Girl from Saskatoon" (co-written with Johnny Horton), and a devastating read of Robert Service's poem "Cremation of Sam McGee" -- add to this narrative. "It's All Over" is an original that comes from Cash's early days but was never recorded properly. There are also covers of tunes by the Louvin Brothers, John Prine, Doug Kershaw, Rodney Crowell, and Carlene Carter.
Disc two is primarily made up of devotional songs; they range from well-known hymns -- "Lily of the Valley," "Farther Along," and "The Way Worn Traveler" -- to provocative tunes of unknown origin -- "If Jesus Ever Loved a Woman (It Was Mary Magdalene)." There are gorgeous original songs such as "No Earthly Good," "What Is Man?," and the track Greil Marcus bases his new liner notes on, "A Half a Mile a Day." Marcus does his usual riff, appropriating French critical theory to (mis)interpret the American experience with claims that "the songs sing the singer," and Cash "disappears into the songs"; but he's wrong. Both the original and historical songs become the stuff of myth and pathos (instead of quaint, dusted-off reflections from musical history) as we eavesdrop on Cash's voice; he delivers them from the ashes with his authority as an artist because he couldn't help but do that. Cash recorded the cover tunes, folk songs, and hymns because they meant something to him; he cut the songs he wrote in order to simply not forget them. Bootleg, Vol. 1: Personal File is a slice of musical autobiography cut in a setting of solitude for the sake of documenting it audio-journal style. For Cash fans, this is simply essential listening.