Seeing God’s World Through The Music of Johnny Horton

Seth Brickley

On August 9, 1960, Americana singer Johnny Horton recorded his number one hit North to Alaska. This song colored my impression of “The Last Frontier.” When I was in high school my family took a trip to Alaska. During our vacation we saw God’s beauty in creation from Seward to Fairbanks. Alaska is unlike any other state. It has oceans, fifty thousand lakes, mountains that reach over twenty thousand feet, heavy forest, and more wildlife than anywhere else in America. While we journeyed through this majestic land we had Johnny Horton with us the whole way. As we drove and listened to his songs it was as if he was in the car singing to us, but the truth was (at this time in 2003) he had been dead for forty-three years. Horton died November 5, 1960 in a car crash at the young age of thirty-five. During this era everyone knows the name Johnny Cash but Horton was every bit as big. The reason everyone knows Cash and not Horton is that he had a full music career; something that Horton was not able to fulfill.

As we drove in our car during our journey through The Great North we listened to songs that did much more than entertain. Each song we heard taught us something about the world that God created. Many songs in that day and especially in our day are shallow but Horton’s music had a certain depth. His songs focused primarily on three features: the beauty of nature, the beauty of romance, and the great history of America. What you can tell listening to Horton’s music is that he loved the world that he lived in. In the song North to Alaska he describes the gold rush in Alaska in the late 1800s. Throughout the song he highlights the grandeur of the North. He describes “winding rivers”, “the Northern Lights running wild”, and these northern lights are found “in the land of the midnight sun.” He describes “the old white mountain just a little southeast of Nome.” I presume this mountain is referring to Mt. McKinley, now called Denali. As he tells the story of men from Seattle pursuing gold in Alaska he provides vivid images of the majesty of the region that would become a state in 1959. In a different song titled Whispering Pines, he captures the pleasant sight of pines as they move in the wind.

In his songs he also highlights the deep love that is found between a man and a woman. One line in the song North to Alaska he describes what was much more important than finding gold; namely, a man finding the love of his life. As Horton sings, “I’d trade all the gold that’s buried in this land for one small band of gold to place on sweet little Jenny’s hand, cause a man needs a woman to love him all the time. Remember, Sam, a true love is so hard to find.” Horton captures the great gift given by God of romantic love between one man and one woman (Proverbs 5:15-19). He sings about God’s perfect created order (Genesis 2:24) the very thing that is under such great attack in our day. In Whispering Pines and All For the Love of a Girl he describes the heartbreak a man experiences when the woman he loves breaks his heart. His songs capture well the longing of a man to have a faithful helpmate through the journey of life (Genesis 2:18). In Scripture Adam was so smitten by Eve that he wrote a poem for her: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23). Adam was delighted to have the helper that God created him to have. In his songs there is a clear theme of a man having one woman for life (1 Timothy 3:2). Horton makes this explicit in another song titled, I’m a One Woman Man. In the song He sings, “I’ll never love another even if I can oh come to me baby I’m a one woman man.” Horton’s music is not explicitly Christian but you can delight in God’s good order described as you listen to his songs.

Lastly, Horton’s songs are patriotic. We live in an era where American elites are trying to deconstruct our past, but Horton celebrates the rich history of America through music. He celebrates Andrew Jackson’s triumph over the British in his song, The Battle of New Orleans. He celebrates the Allies early success in World War II when they sunk the powerful German ship in his song Sink the Bismarck. He informed Americans about a 19th century mountain man and explorer worth remembering in his song Jim Bridger. He also wrote a song in honor of the often-maligned Confederate Army in his song, Johnny Reb. In 1958 Horton sang this song to the final surviving Confederate soldier. Even though Confederates were not completely pure, he highlighted their virtue and every American should appreciate this.

Horton’s music shows the image of God displayed in him (Genesis 1:26-27). He recognized what a wonderful world God created through his beauty shown in nature, through his good order in romance, and the story of American history that God has written. By all accounts, Horton was not a believer, but at his funeral, interestingly, his dear friend Johnny Cash read Scripture from John 20 that describes the resurrection of Christ. Even though this old singer did not appear to be a child of God (ultimately only He knows) I am grateful for him. As God’s image bearer he showed me something of God through helping me see his world better, and for that I will always thank the Lord for Johnny Horton.

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