Today is Johnny Cash’s 78th birthday, and if he were still alive, he would probably spend it quietly with his family. That is not the case though, because Cash died September 12, 2003 from complications with Diabetes. So, here we are, left to celebrate a man who won’t even be able to show up for the cake. In life, he was larger than the California sequoia, and in death he has risen to mountainous status; how would he feel about this? I have no idea, but I do know that he came by that adulation honestly, and never tried to shadow over the fact that he had stumbled down the path he cut.
He came about at a time when modern music was in its infancy: rock n’ roll had just been given a name, folk was making a comeback, and country was decked out in rhinestone. Somehow this man, dressed in nothing but a simple black suit, managed to capture the adrenaline of rock, the wisdom of folk and the heart of country, chew it up and spit it back out at us in 4/4 time. He was the unsuspecting revolutionary, and once he got himself cleaned up, he wielded his power for good. In 1969, The Johnny Cash Show debuted on ABC, and for 2 years would continue where his songs left off, bridging the gap between genres and generations.
His first guest was Bob Dylan, the young folk-turned rocker upstart that turned the 60s on its head. Cash had appeared on Dylan’s latest album, Nashville Skyline, duetting “Girl From The North Country”. In return, Dylan came and sang a few songs for the first taping, June 7, 1969, including the duet with Cash. It’s beautiful to hear the bruised and broken voices coming together on such a tender song. Both men had been through the ringer, both personally and professionally at this point, and they’re pairing is pleasantly unexpected. Cash hosted many important figures in the music arena, including
Neal Young, Joni Mitchell, The Carter Family, Jerry Reed, Glen Campbell, The Monkees, Merle Haggard, Carl Perkins, Odetta, Mama Cass Elliot, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, CCR, Kirk Douglas, Ray Charles, Kris Kristofferson, Stevie Wonder, George Jones, Pete Seeger and the list goes on.
Not only was The Johnny Cash Show an important vehicle for music, but Cash also used it to discuss important issues of the day. Both he and June became advocates for Native American rights in the early 70s. They were also advocates for prisoners’ rights, stemming from the experiences had with his albums Live From Folsom Prison and Live From San Quentin.
I was introduced to Johnny my freshman year of college. 7 days into my adult career an article appeared in our school newspaper, reflecting on the legacy he left and how people were drawn to it. His death had lit a tinderbox of fanaticism; people who had never heard of him were suddenly undying fans, because he had done things that they thought were cool. I’ll be honest, I had the article taped up on my door, before I had heard a single song. Now as I listen to his music, his words take on a richer meaning. His convictions were strong, and he wouldn’t let the world sway him. He refused to be looked at as a savior, but I think he has helped to save a lot of people.