This is a research essay I wrote for Ms. Boyter during the final days of my first semester.
The picture was taken with a 35mm film camera and a self timer.
English Composition 101
12 December, 2017
Atop the Shoulders of the Man in Black
The shoulders of Johnny Cash were strong; they were strong because they held him up under the weight of all the trouble he walked into. And they were strong enough for the thousands of people who needed a bridge and walked across by way of the man in black. There was by no means one choice or one decision that propelled him to the place that he holds in history. But after fifty years of doing what he believed he was put on the earth to do, be a singer, he has a corner in the halls of fame and in the hearts of the Americans who heard his deep baritone come up from the records and out of the airwaves and down from the stages on which he sang.
Johnny Cash wrote songs he believed in. From love songs like, “I Walk the Line” to commentaries on society like “What Is Truth” to songs that pleaded the case of the downtrodden like “Man in Black”, he sang about something bigger than himself, something he believed the people needed to hear. In an interview Cash said, “Country music to me is not beer drinking, you done me wrong, darling, I’m gonna bust your head kind of songs. It does have a social conscious. My songs do. It’s the music of the people. So it’s got to point out, from time to time, some of the problem of the people.” (I Am Johnny Cash) These songs that he spoke of live on to be learned by new generations years after he is gone from us. Some of them seem almost more than country western songs written by a boy from the farmlands of Arkansas. Like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, they feel like anthems that he was born to give to us.
J.R. Cash was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland Arkansas to Ray and Carrie Cash. He was fourth in the line of seven children that lived and worked on the Cash farm where they picked cotton and lived poor. Music, gospel soul music, was with Cash from the time he was born. He later said, “The music and the songs were what carried us up and above the drudgery of the cotton fields. It took us away. It carried our spirits away, away from the hard work, away from the pain, away from the grief. If we couldn’t sing, I don’t think we could’ve made it.” (I Am Johnny Cash) His father Ray was a very hard-working man who expected nothing less from his children. Things like listening to the radio didn’t strike him as very productive or worthwhile. In some ways Johnny’s older brother Jack mentored him and wrapped his arms around him in a way that his father was never able to do. And it was one day when he was twelve that Johnny’s father drove up beside him, picked him up, and broke to him news that would imprint his young life with a sorrow he would have to carry for a long time. While he was fishing that day, Jack was working in the school’s woodshop. Jack fell into the saw blade he was using to cut lumber and opened himself up almost from his belt to his neck. In the days that followed, Ray could only say that the wrong son was taken, that it should have been Johnny.
In 1950, at the age of eighteen, Cash joined the Air Force. He wasn’t allowed to enlist with his initials J.R. as his first name, so he changed his name to John R. Cash – the name the world would someday know. During his stay in the Air Force, Cash and his girlfriend, Vivian Liberto, exchanged volumes of love letters. In August of 1954, a few months after his return from the Air Force, the two were married. Johnny had been playing music for several years around the Air Force base, but it was in 1954 that he took the first real steps towards a career in music. According to an article published by Sun Records, the small label where Cash first approached a producer about cutting a record,
In 1954, the Cash [sic] moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he sold appliances, while studying to be a radio announcer. At night, he played with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Perkins and Grant were known as the Tennessee Two. Cash worked up the courage to visit the Sun Records studio, hoping to get a recording contract. After auditioning for Sam Phillips, singing mostly gospel songs, Phillips told him to “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.” Cash eventually won over Phillips with new songs delivered in his early frenetic style. His first recordings at Sun, “Hey Porter” and “Cry Cry Cry,” were released in 1955 and met with reasonable success on the country hit parade. (Sun Records)
Some say that Sam Phillips never mentioned anything about going home and sinning. It is clear though that Cash showed up at the studio hoping to become a recording artist performing the kind of gospel music that he grew up on: black southern gospel, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the Carter Family. His own songs though were what grabbed the interest of the label. Johnny Cash formed a band called The Tennessee Three, and they played their first concert as an added attraction to an Elvis Presley show in Memphis. Later Sun Records cut his first record, “Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar”.
Songs from his first album, “Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar” included: “Cry Cry Cry”, “I Walk the Line”, and “Folsom Prison Blues” which was a song Cash was inspired to write after watching a documentary about Folsom Prison while in the Air Force. He stole the opening melody lines and words from Gordon Jenkins’ song, “Crescent City Blues” and crafted something he would continue to sing his whole career. “I Walk the Line” was written backstage one night in Gladewater, Texas and stayed at the number one spot on the charts for six weeks.
It’s important to realize that Cash’s life and career, like that of the vast majority, were not catapulted into stardom as a result of one right decision. It was, as it often is, a string of hard work and choices a hundred miles long that took the boy from the Arkansas delta country to Country Music Hall of Fame. The Tennessee Three featured Luther Perkins on the electric guitar, Marshall Grant on the upright bass, and Johnny Cash playing acoustic guitar and singing. The famous sound that emerged from the three men playing together, often referred to as the “train-track bass”, came not from ingenuity but from lack of a drummer. Much in the same way that Ringo Starr of the Beatles originated unique drum patterns because he was left handed and to play a right-handed kit, so the Tennessee Three stumbled upon an iconic sound that would be recognizable fifty years later.
After the huge commercial success of his first album, Cash took to the road to tour his songs. And while “I Walk the Line” was enjoying its time on the charts, Johnny’s wife Vivian was at home growing more and more worried about the life her husband was being pulled into. Being a successful touring musician meant long absences and brutal schedules. Her doubts were not unfounded. Somewhere along the way, someone introduced Cash to amphetamines; they were a way that he and many other performers in the late fifties managed to keep going on the road. For Johnny Cash it was a step down a very dark road, a step that would leave scars on him and the ones he loved. It was said that, “Ordinarily with an amphetamine you take one tablet. Johnny was taking a hundred tablets a week, sometimes more. Sometimes he wouldn’t sleep for three days. And then the fourth day he’d have to take a downer of some kind, maybe sleep for eighteen hours. He was ruining his life.” (I Am Johnny Cash)
By the time Cash signed with Columbia records in 1958, where he’d stay for twenty-six years, he was seriously addicted to the drugs. He had lost weight and earned lines down his face. But up on the stage, away from the noise of the road and the guilt of a marriage going wrong, he was free and on fire. His daughter Rosanne said, “The way he related to an audience when he was on stage was his best self.” (I Am Johnny Cash) It was clear, regardless of the hell that he had walked himself into, Johnny Cash was born to perform – the stage was his element. Yet despite his deft stage presence, his life was in shambles. Johnny Cash during the sixties was truly something to behold.
Although he was in many ways spiraling out of control, Johnny Cash’s frenetic creativity was still delivering hits. His rendition of “Ring of Fire” was a crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and entering the Top 20 on the pop charts… In June 1965, his camper caught fire during a fishing trip . . . in California, triggering a forest fire that burnt several hundred acres and nearly killed Cash. When the judge asked Cash why he did it, Cash said, “I didn’t do it, my truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.” The fire destroyed 508 acres (206 ha), burning the foliage off three mountains and driving off forty-nine of the refuge’s 53 endangered condors. Cash was unrepentant and claimed, “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.” (Patrick)
Then on October 4, 1965 Cash was arrested in El Paso, Texas after crossing the boarder and buying about one thousand amphetamines which he stuffed into the sound-hole of his guitar.
When he was a little boy, he heard the Carter family sing on the radio, and he said that he was going to grow up and marry June Carter. And as he began to come in contact with June in the touring world, the two fell in love. Both were already married, but they were magic on the stage together. His first wife Vivian could see that she had lost Johnny to the road and to another woman, and in 1966 she filed for divorce. In 1968 Cash and Carter were married, and the two stayed together till death.
Somehow through the addiction and insanity of touring life Cash was able to continue to stay at the top of his game musically. In 1968 he recorded his live prison albums in Folsom and San Quentin Prisons. These albums took him from a country music star to an international celebrity. “At Folsom Prison” won the CMA’s album of the year, and in 1969 Johnny Cash sold more albums than all other Columbia artists combined.
It is quite hard to know at what times in his life Johnny Cash was addicted to drugs. As he wandered through the endless cycles of rehab and relapse, it’s doubtful whether he knew himself. Sometime though, near the end of the sixties with the help of his wife, he was able to get clean for a period of time. Maybe it was not in spite of but because of the fact that he knew what it was to be a slave to substance and live in constant sorrow that he was able to be such an advocate and catalyst for people whom he saw needing change. In his song “Man in Black” Cash sings,
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.
And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believin’ that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believin’ that we all were on their side.
Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black. (Man in Black)
You cannot say that Johnny Cash had a dark side and a good side, for he had a thousand sides. He was an incredible songwriter, a wavering husband and father, a devout Christian, a drug addict, and certainly a man with a strong back. He had a fierce love and passion for the people he seen that were downtrodden and couldn’t get back on their feet, and for many years he lobbied for prison reform and on behalf of Native Americans. His daughter Rosanne said,
He made me feel really safe. Like there was this person on the earth who really understood who I was. When I was twelve years old, I wrote him about how I wanted to do something big and important with my life. How I longed to do good things and great things and that I loved poetry and music. And he wrote back, “I see that you see as I see.” His capacity for love was really deep. (I Am Johnny Cash)
In 1969 ABC gave Cash an opportunity to host a television show. It was called The Johnny Cash Show, and featured Johnny and June Cash along with many other musicians who were chosen as special guests. The show, which was mostly filmed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, was a great success over its three years of run time. It gave Cash a platform which he used to promote artists who otherwise would have never gotten air time. For many people like Bob Dylan and Glen Sherley, it was a medium which showed their faces to America and propelled their careers.
Richard Nixon invited Cash to perform at the White House in 1972 and requested that he perform “Welfare Cadillac” and “Okie from Muskogee”. Cash wasn’t comfortable with singing songs that poked fun at the poor and instead played for the President songs of a very different nature including, “What Is Truth”, “Man in Black”, and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. Each of these songs spoke on behalf of those whom Cash seen as marginalized during Nixon’s presidency.
In the late seventies Johnny Cash’s renown started to wear off. His record sales dipped drastically and, come 1986, Columbia decided to drop him from the recording label. Cash took to the road again. But this time it was for lesser crowds in smaller venues. Cash was fifty-four years old at this point, and it wasn’t until Rick Rubin of American Recordings approached him with the idea of a new record that Cash gained the attention of America again. It was the eighty-first album of Cash’s career and was composed mostly of covers and songs he’d written years earlier. The stripped down, man and his guitar sound were received well, and the album received critical acclaim.
Then in 2002, the year before his death, Cash made a music video in which he covered “Hurt”, a song written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. It would be one of his most important works. Speaking of the music video which would win 2003 music video of the year, A.J. Samuels said,
The track serves as epithet for a man whose life was equally brilliant and tormented. Pain – “the only thing that’s real” – was more often than not Cash’s reference material. Whether it was his own, or that of others (Cash is often credited for giving voice to the voiceless: prisoners, the poor, the hungry, and the old), Cash’s willingness to bare his fallibility for all to see ensures we believe the stories he chose to tell us, and keeps us carryin’ on, listening. (Samuels)
There is a line in Thorton Wilder’s play “The Angel That Troubled the Waters” which goes, “In love’s service only wounded soldiers can serve.” (Wilder) Johnny Cash was a man who got beaten down time and time again, often by his own choosing. He ran to the wrong places for love and sinned grievously against what he believed in. But now, years after he is dead, we look back and try to come to terms with what his life meant. For Vivian his first wife, he was a broken dream. For the men at San Quentin and Folsom Prison, he was a brother who shone a light of hope on them. For the Native Americans trying to find their place, he was an advocate. For all those whom he promoted on ABC, he was a guidepost. And perhaps for everyone else, he is what it looks like to get beaten down, get back up, and go on. He is both the prodigal son and the defender of the quartet of the vulnerable. He is forever Johnny Cash, the man in black.
Works Cited and References:
“I Am Johnny Cash (Full Documentary).” Youtube, 22 March 2017,
“Johnny Cash.” Sun Record Company, http://www.sunrecords.com/artists/johnny-cash.
Patrick, Neil. “Johnny Cash accidentally started a wildfire that destroyed over 500 acres and killed 49 endangered condors.” The Vintage News, 4 Oct. 2016, m.thevintagenews.com/2016/09/05/priority-johnny-cash-accidentally-started-wildfire-destroyed-500-acres-killed-49-refuges-53-endangered-condors/.
Johnny Cash. “Man in Black.” Man in Black, Columbia, 1971. MP3.
Samuels, A. J. “The Good, The Bad, And The Real Johnny Cash.” Culture Trip, 26 July 2013, theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/arkansas/articles/the-good-the-bad-and-the-real-johnny-cash/.
“The Angel that Troubled the Waters.” The Official Website of the Thornton Wilder Family. http://www.thorntonwilder.com/drama/playlets/the-angel-that-troubled-the-waters/.
Whiteside, Jonny. “The Time Johnny Cash Set Fire to a National Forest.” L.A. Weekly, 6 Apr. 2016, http://www.laweekly.com/music/the-time-johnny-cash-set-fire-to-a-national-forest-4777925.
Johnson, Brett. “Johnny Cash’s first wife tells of romance, heartbreak.” Ventura County Star, Ventura, 21 July 2017, http://www.vcstar.com/story/entertainment/2016/10/26/johnny-cashs-first-wife-tells-of-romance-heartbreak-june-carter-vivian-cash-/92772320/.
Demain, Bill. “The Time Johnny Cash Met Richard Nixon.” When Johnny Cash Met Richard Nixon | Mental Floss, 14 July 2014, mentalfloss.com/article/30142/when-johnny-cash-met-richard-nixon.
Diehl, Matt. “Remembering Johnny.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 16 Oct. 2003, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/remembering-johnny-20031016.
Dawson, George. “Johnny Cash On Doctors And Chronic Pain”, 1 Jan. 1970, real-psychiatry.blogspot.com/2015/06/johnny-cash-on-doctors-and-chronic-pain.html.
Cross, Alan. “Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” – The Saddest Music Video Ever Made.” A Journal of Musical Things, 16 Apr. 2017, ajournalofmusicalthings.com/johnny-cashs-hurt-saddest-music-video-ever-made/.