Today is the anniversary of the birth of the incomparable Johnny Cash. Originally signed to the Sun Records label by Sam Phillips in the ’50s, he had an incredibly long and productive career as one of the beloved giants of American popular music.
He was a wonderful songwriter and performer. Among the fine songs he wrote and memorably performed are “Big River,” “Give My Love to Rose,” “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “I Walk the Line,” and “I Still Miss Someone.” In “Folsom Prison Blues” he wrote the most chilling line in country music: “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”
Songs written by others that he turned into hits include “Ring of Fire” and “A Boy Named Sue.” He was an open-hearted artist who became an early advocate and performer of songs by gifted songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and Kris Kristofferson.
In February 1969 Cash performed for the inmates at San Quentin Prison. In the video above, a radiant June Carter Cash joins him onstage for their duet on “Jackson.”
When Cash died, John Hinderaker observed that words like “superstar” and “legend” are tossed around so freely nowadays that it is hard to convey the stature of a true giant like Cash to those not familiar with his work. He both preceded and transcended the split between country music and rock and roll, so that his early hits like “Ring of Fire” and even later songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “A Boy Named Sue” were huge hits not only on the country charts or on country stations, but across the popular music spectrum. And he continued performing and creating good music right up to the end.
JOHN adds: Johnny Cash was one of the all time greats. Songs like “I Still Miss Someone,” “Cry Cry Cry,” and many others will be with us for a long time. My personal favorite is “Ring Of Fire,” one of the first popular songs I remember hearing on the radio.
A few years ago my wife and I went to a Gear Daddies concert at the Minnesota Zoo, which is just a few hundred yards from our house. The Gear Daddies are one of the cult bands of our time; their lead singer, Marty Zeller, is a Minnesotan. It was a great concert, and one of the most memorable moments was when Zeller sang “Ring of Fire,” an oldie that must have been recorded before many of the hipster Gear Daddy fans were born, let alone listening to the radio. What was funny was that the entire crowd sang along. Everyone knew the words and joined in happily. It was a fun tribute to music that will live for a long, long time and is not constrained by current genre categories.
UPDATE: Our friend Seth Liebsohn directs us to a 2006 post discussing Cash’s affection for Israel and answering the question “What did Johnny Cash like to eat?”