In the frontier of American music-making, Johnny Cash was a pioneer. As a musician, he was an icon. As a man, an enigma. He was a man of deep faith but also deeply flawed. He was an outlaw, but respectful of others. Defiant of the powerful yet admired by presidents and monarchs and a man of the common people. He was the quintessential American. He championed the underdog and the disenfranchised, especially Native Americans and convicts, even when the country music business rejected his efforts. His roots were in country music but his talent and spirit bridged many genres, including gospel, blues, rockabilly, folk, pop, and rock and roll. Cash sold more than 90 million records worldwide, including ten platinum albums. In 1969, he eclipsed even the Beatles to sell more than 6.5 million albums that year.
Johnny Cash was a man with demons who fought addiction but was also a man of honor. And he was so much more than his music. The special public television documentary series by Ken Burns now showing celebrates Country Music history and the many icons like Cash who built the genre and sang our favorite American songs. If you haven’t seen this series yet, you’re missing out! (View it on your local public TV station, on Netflix or Amazon Prime.) Here are ten facts you probably didn’t know about Johnny Cash (some featured in the tv series):
DUG HIS BROTHER’S GRAVE AT AGE 12 Johnny was born the fourth of seven children in Kingsland, Arkansas, in 1932. His brother, Jack, was two years older and they were very close. When they were little, they moved to Dyess Colony in Arkansas, a New Deal colony that granted poor families a new home and 20 acres to farm. When Jack was 14, he was cutting fence posts when he got caught in the table saw and it ripped into his midsection, nearly cutting him in half. He dragged himself across the dirty floor to call for help. Jack lingered for a week before he died. Johnny was deeply affected by Jack’s religious faith (Jack wanted to become a minister) and his brother’s deathbed vision of angels coming to take him to heaven inspired Johnny’s lifetime Christian faith.
DIDN’T LEARN THE GUITAR UNTIL HE WAS AN ADULT Although Cash loved music and listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio growing up, he did not learn to play the guitar until he was in the Air Force. At age 18, he volunteered during the Korean War and, while stationed in Germany, bought his first guitar. Cash worked as a Morse Code interceptor of Soviet transmissions. He started his first band in the Air Force, The Landsberg Barbarians, and was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant after four years of service.
SUNG GOSPEL FIRST In 1954, Cash moved to Memphis and screwed up the courage to audition at Sun Records, which represented Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash sung several gospels songs for Sam Phillips, who was rumored to have told Cash: “Go home and sin then come back with a song I can sell.” Cash started singing rockabilly and Phillips agree to record his first album the next year. The album’s songs, which included “Hey Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry!” made it to the country hit parade.
CHAMPIONED CONVICTS Cash’s next record, “Folsom Prison Blues,” made the country top five and his song, “I Walk the Line” became number one on the country charts and top twenty on the pop charts. Although Cash had never served a day in prison, his persona as an outlaw and rebel and a man who’d seen hard times appealed to convicts. He would become a vocal advocate for convict rights and later met with President Nixon to advocate for better prison conditions. Later Cash also recorded at San Quentin and produced a live album from the experience.
INSPIRED MERLE HAGGARD AT SAN QUENTIN. While performing live at San Quentin Prison IN 1969, a young man and future country music superstar was sitting in the audience. Merle Haggard had been arrested so many times as a juvenile and had escaped juvenile detention 17 times, he was finally thrown into the high security San Quentin. Haggard was so inspired by Johnny Cash’s performance, he promised himself he would pursue a singing career when he got out of prison. Later, Johnny Cash helped Haggard break into the music business.
GAVE KRIS KRISTOFFERSON HIS START Merle Haggard wasn’t the only superstar to get his start with Cash’s help. Kris Kristofferson was an Army brat and the son of a U.S. Army General. He first became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, played rugby and boxed. Then, pressured by his father, entered Ranger School. But when he heard Johnny Cash perform, he decided to become a singer. He got a job as a janitor at Columbia Records in Nashville. One day he got a letter from his family disowning him for his career choice. He showed the letter to June Carter and she showed it to Johnny. He took Kristofferson under his wing, listened to some of Kristofferson’s songs, and decided to record “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” That year, Kristofferson won Songwriter of the Year at the Country Music Awards.
CHAMPION OF NATIVE AMERICANS. Beginning very early in his singing life, Johnny Cash wrote a song called “Old Apache Squaw” in 1957. Then, in 1964, he recorded “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.” The album included many songs from various TRIBES: The Pima ("The Ballad of Ira Hayes"), Navajo ("Navajo"), Apache ("Apache Tears"), Lakota ("Big Foot"), Seneca ("As Long as the Grass Shall Grow"), and Cherokee ("Talking Leaves"). In 1966, as a result of his activism, the Seneca Nation’s Turtle Clan adopted him. He also performed at the Rosebud Reservation, close to Wounded Knee. During his television show from 1969 to 1971, he continued to advocate for native issues, singing songs and running short clips from films like Trail of Tears. In the 1980s, he performed at D-Q University (Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl), a two-year college in California serving the native community.
SIX HALL OF FAME MUSIC AWARDS In 1980, Cash became the Country Music Hall of Fame's youngest living inductee at age 48. His crossover appeal won Cash not only induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but also the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1977), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1992), Rockabilly Hall of Fame (1997), GMA's Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2010). and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame (2013).
ARRESTED SEVEN TIMES BUT NEVER IN PRISON Cash’s persona as an ex-con was famous, but he never did a day in prison. Nevertheless, convicts identified with him as one of them. (His live concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin were made into some of his most famous albums.) During his career, Cash was arrested seven times but only spent one night in city jail and that was for trespassing and picking flowers! He wrote a song about it called Starkville City Jail for his San Quentin album. And Starkville, Mississippi, now holds an annual festival in his name called the “Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival.”
JOHNNY & JUNE DIED WITHIN THREE MONTHS OF EACH OTHER Johnny died three months after the love of his life and second wife, June Carter Cash, died in 2003. She had told him on her deathbed to keep writing songs. And he did. 60 more songs in the last three months of his life, after she died. On his last public performance, before ending with “Ring of Fire,” Cash read a dedication to June: “The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her. We connect somewhere between here and Heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from Heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has. I thank God for June Carter. I love her with all my heart.”
He joined June very shortly thereafter.
PHOTOS: (1) Johnny Cash was famous for his numerous train songs. Ballads about trains played an important part in the creation of the country genre because, during the Depression, millions traveled West by hopping freight trains. Trains were not only an escape from grinding poverty, by a path to dreams. Some of Cash’s most popular titles of his dozens of train songs were Folsom Prison Blues, The Wreck of the Old 97, Rock Island Line, The Ballad of Casey Jones, Orange Blossom Special, Blue Train, Train of Love, Waiting for a Train. Cash also hosted a 1974 documentary, “Ridin’ the Rails,” telling stories and singing songs about the glory days of America’s railroad. (2) Johnny Cash during a recording session at the Columbia Records 30th Street Studios in New York City in October 1959. © Don Hunstein photograph. (3) Beginning very early in his singing life, Johnny Cash championed American Indians. His first song was the 1957 “Old Apache Squaw.” Then, in 1964, he recorded “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.” (4) One of Cash’s most popular albums was the 1969 live concert at San Quentin Prison in California. (5) Mug shots of Johnny Cash when he was arrested in October 1965 by U.S. Customs agents who found hundreds of pep pills and tranquilizers in his luggage. The Man in Black--who was returning by plane from a trip to Juarez, Mexico--spent a night in the El Paso jail, and later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count. Cash paid a $1000 fine and received a 30-day suspended sentence. (6) Famous Johnny Cash photograph by Leigh Wiener, 1962. Wiener photographed some of Americans greatest musicians and other popular cultural icons. (7) During his live 1969 concert at San Quentin Prison, the photographer Jim Marshall said, “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” That was Cash’s response! Marshall said it was “probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world.” (8) Johnny with the love of his life and second wife, country music iconic singer, June Carter. (9) Cash and Elvis Presley were friends and Cash supported his music, even though the country music industry and the Grand Ole Opry rejected Presley’s style. (10) Cash gave Kris Kristofferson his start in the music industry. (11) Johnny Cash hosted a huge variety of singers on his television show (1969-1971). He also supported many singers that country music initially rejected such as early black pioneer in the genre, Charlie Pride, who would later become a megastar in country music.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
Posted September 26, 2019
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