More than 40 years after the late singer
Johnny Cash was arrested in Starkville, residents of the east
Mississippi town plan a festival in his honor that will include a
ceremonial pardoning for the "Man in Black."
The Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival is scheduled for Nov.
2-4 with some events on the campus of Mississippi State University,
said Robbie Ward, executive director of the festival.
Ward, 29, a research writer at MSU, started talking to residents
two years ago about a festival - and a pardon for Cash.
"A lot of people would laugh at me and act like I was kind of
crazy," Ward said.
Now with about 500 signatures on his petition, Ward is heading
up a committee of 25 residents, including a local pastor, alderman
and a bar owner.
"The idea is to allow Johnny Cash fans around the world to take
ownership in this festival," Ward said.
Ward has contacted state and local officials about issuing the
pardon. He is scheduled to speak to the city's board of aldermen
Lou Robin, Cash's manager for 31 years, now handles business
affairs for the Johnny Cash Estate.
"I think it would be fun to have John honored even though it
started out as kind of a negative reason," Robin said.
Cash died in 2003.
There are different versions of what happened the night of May
11, 1965, in Starkville.
One told by Cash himself in his autobiography is that he was
arrested by police while walking from his motel to a grocery store
after attending a party at a fraternity house on the Mississippi
Another version is that Cash was arrested while picking flowers
in someone's yard.
Cash admitted in his book, "I was screaming, cussing and
kicking at the cell door all night long until I finally broke my
big toe. At 8 a.m. the next morning they let me out when they knew
I was sober."
Cash later wrote a song about the ordeal calling it,
"Starkville City Jail," and later performed it for the inmates at
San Quentin Prison.
"Starkville is now known by fans by virtue (of the song),"
said Bill Miller, founder of the Web site www.JohnnyCash.com.
Miller said the song demonstrates Cash's openness about his
"Johnny was one of the artists that never tried to hide his
background or his past," Miller said. "The significance that he
would write a song about it, shows just who the man was."
Robin said he thinks Cash would appreciate so much interest in
an event in his past that was, well, sobering.
Ward said the message of the Starkville festival will focus on
redemption, something he feels Cash exemplified.
"We believe the pardon is not about his arrest in Starkville,
it's recognizing that when people make mistakes what matters is
what they learn from those mistakes," Ward said.
Maheen Wickramasinghe, 22, of Ontario, Canada, said he got
through many hard times in his life by listening to Cash's music,
especially gospel selections.
"There is no other singer like him that can be so soothing,"
Born blind, Wickramasinghe, a Sri Lanka native, said he heard
Cash's music at the age of 9 while living with his family in
England. Wickramasinghe, a piano player, said he got hooked on Cash
at about 12 years old.
On Nov. 2, a community-wide social is planned with a charity
auction at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house. At the university's
amphitheater, there will be a showing of the Cash-biopic "Walk the
Ward is trying to line up those who have written books about
Cash for a Nov. 3 discussion group on the Arkansas native. Later
that day, plans include a ceremony at the site Cash was arrested, a
downtown concert honoring Cash's music, a sermon on redemption and
what Ward hopes to be a symbolic pardon by city officials issued to
Rev. Allison S. Parvin, associate pastor at the First United
Methodist Church, will deliver the redemption sermon during the
"His (Cash's) is just one of the great gospel stories of now,"
Ward said the final event of the night would include a jam
session on stage with musical artists with the audience singing
"Starkville City Jail."
A community-wide church service is planned at the MSU
amphitheater for Nov. 4 to close the festival.
"By Sunday morning, Johnny Cash will have been pardoned and
before it's over we'll all need forgiveness," Ward said.
Admission to the event will be free, with a suggested donation
of $10. The donations will be divided between the
Starkville/Oktibbeha Boys and Girls Club and the Oktibbeha County
"This being a fundraiser for local charitable organizations
makes it an even more worthwhile project and, of course, the Cash
family would be pleased at that end result," Robin said.
To make the event free and secure musicians for the festival -
perhaps even surviving members of Cash's 1980s group The
Highwaymen, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson - Ward said the
committee is selling T-shirts (black, of course), bearing the words
"Pardon Me, I'm Pickin' Flowers."
Ward said he hopes to make the event an annual affair.
On the Net:
Johnny Cash Official Web Site: