Meeting an Old Friend: Johnny Cash, the Man in Black

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down;

            Living 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.

-Johnny Cash, the Man in Black

In the Summer of 1969, Johnny Cash appeared at Folsom and San Quentin prisons in Northern California. He played songs that we all know, like Ring of Fire, I Walk the Line and A Boy Named Sue. These recordings, over a decade into his already impressive career, topped the Country Music charts. Johnny Cash at San Quentin spent time as the number 2 album on the Pop charts. This was the same year the Beatles released the White Album, Dylan released Nashville Skyline and Hair was the year’s top selling album.

Johnny Cash, the man who always wore black on stage, not only spoke for those who had no voice but so much more so, he spoke for himself. He embodied that poor prisoner, enslaved by his own life decisions- like many of us.

He was the fourth child, born in 1932 to cotton farmers named Ray and Carrie in Kingsland, Arkansas and raised in a small town called Dyress. He was closest to his brother Jack, who was two years older than Johnny. Jack was a spiritual leader in the family and declared early on in his life that he felt a call to the ministry. If you have seen the movie Walk the Line, you may remember Johnny and Jack as young boys with Jack staying up late to study the bible. Johnny looked up to his brother as a pillar of stability and spirituality. He was a little boy who longed for both.

Johnny’s dad was a hard-working cotton farmer who worked long hours in the fields. By the age of five, Johnny was out in the fields picking cotton alongside his mother, sisters and brothers. Ray was a hard Midwestern man with Irish roots raising a family during the Great Depression. As many of us know, emotional support was not something the Greatest Generation was given by mom and dad.

From an early age Johnny’s mother could see his incredible gift as a singer. When his voice broke as an adolescent and those great baritone sounds accompanied him, Johnny’s mother encouraged him to pursue a life in music. She paid for one voice lesson, after which his teacher told him never to listen to anybody about his voice. It was perfect and needed no help. Later on, Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records in Memphis, gave him complete liberty to sing and play naturally. This may account for why so many early recordings of his are littered with sharps, flats and timing mistakes. My dad is a drummer and if you ever want to see a conflicted man, ask him about Johnny’s rhythm- it takes everything in him to admit that his sense of timing was horrible, so much love does he have for Johnny.

When Johnny was old enough, he joined the Air Force and, as he put it, “Fought in the Cold War.” Not only did he get a chance to leave Dyress but he also met and fell in love with Vivian. They would marry one another after his short stay with Uncle Sam and move to Memphis.

Johnny at Sun Studios

In 1955, Johnny summoned the courage to audition at Sun Records, owned by the legendary Sam Phillips. Johnny introduced himself:

Mr. Phillips, sir, if you listen to me, you’ll be glad you did.

 That must have cracked him up but Sam Phillips told him:

           I like to hear a boy with confidence in him. Come on in.

If you have seen Walk the Line (20th Century Fox, 2005) you might when Johnny and his band are playing those tired old gospel songs and Sam kept stopping them mid-verse. There is that fantastic part when Sam, exasperated, preaches more gospel to Johnny than he knew.

 Boy, Sam comes so close to the truth, right? He is begging Johnny to be honest- begging him to express how he really felt. This is the type of freedom we all need but Sam’s advice is so backwards here.

Johnny’s problem is the exact same as ours. He trusted far too much in himself. He relied on his own judgment and that caused him so much heartbreak. He was a prisoner for far longer than his sentence- a victim of his own times, if you will.

The story of Johnny Cash has everything to do with a man laying down his judgments and learning to trust in the God who was for him. As we take a look at Johnny’s story over the next few posts, see if you can see a reflection from the Man in Black.

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