Essentials: Johnny Cash ‘I Walk The Line’

When Bob Dylan was hired by Columbia Records in 1963 the first person on the Columbia roster he wanted to meet was Johnny Cash. Never underestimate the influence that Mr. Cash had on Mr. Dylan. They became good friends, and Dylan’s recordings in Nashville were a significant turn of events in his career: he went from Woody Guthrie-type folk songs to Johnny Cash-type ballads with a short stop at the electric guitar store in between: listen to Cash sing “Wes Hardin” and then to Dylan singing “John Wesley Harding”. The whole Nashville trip for Dylan in my view was in homage to one of his musical heroes.

Moreover, Johnny Cash has long been touted as one of the most American of men: his masculinity, his directness, his honesty, and his damned willingness to be himself no matter what the consequences are seen, not just by his countrymen but by men and women the world over, as quintessentially American in value and in action.

Great singers last; great performers last because they keep changing. Rick Rubin, the noted record producer, engaged Johnny Cash towards the end of Johnny’s life in a series of CD’s entitled “American Recordings”. Take a listen to Cash’s hard-edged versions of some very surprising material: Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” and Bono’s “The Wanderer”. In these songs I hear everything that I believe the psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung meant when he talked about the understanding one receives before death that “the end is in the beginning”, that what has happened in one’s life was inevitable, necessary, and that one becomes more of what one is as we get older. I hear all of this in Johnny Cash, 1956 and 1999.

Cash did something extraordinary in the mid-sixties by ignoring the advice of his record company and his managers when he took his show to Folsom prison. In performing for, and identifying with, the prison population, he demonstrated solidarity with those who were lifetime cons: undeserving, condemned, and sidelined by society. There’s only one precedent for Cash, and that precedent is Hank Williams. The only difference is that Cash survived his addictions and his skirt-chasing, and the life on the road, and became in the end somewhat revered for his life experience as well as his music.

Johnny Cash was a ballad singer and story-teller of the first order. People often mistake the chucka-chucka beat of his guitar and his band for simplicity, but Cash is anything but simple. “Mr. Garfield’s been shot down, shot down, shot down” is one of the great song stories about the death of an American President, and frankly it makes of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” 1967 hit a pablum for addled liberals.

“Ring of Fire” is one of the most passionate confessions of sexual attraction ever recorded, which brings us to June Carter, for she wrote this song about her attempts to stay away from his attraction to her. Johnny Cash was larger than life, a precursor to Bill Clinton, another major public figure whose talent extended from the stage to the bedroom. Cash got lucky; he found the woman who would not be denied, who would insist he give up his prescription pills, his predilection to “go to Jackson and mess around” and all that the life on the road entails. Clinton, on the other hand, is not so lucky. His passion for politics has been turned into a self-serving glad-handing exhibition of still brilliant public speaking and ill-disguised pleas for donations, while his passion for women has been curtailed by Hillary’s political ambitions.

As for “I Walk The Line.” Johnny Cash apparently wrote this song for his first wife Vivian as an expression of his devotion to her. When he was out on the road, subjected to temptations, he walked the straight and narrow line and thought only of his true love, or so he said. This tune gave Johnny his first big hit. but he couldn’t live up to his own words. Once he saw the beautiful June Carter, and once he sang with her, he couldn’t get her out of his mind.

The thunderbolt works in strange ways.