In the liner notes of his American Recordings album, Johnny Cash wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humour, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother and God.”
And these topics made up the bulk of Cash’s discography, including these six songs. But what exactly inspired them? Let’s find out.
1. “I Walk the Line”
Can you believe Cash’s biggest hit was written in just 20 minutes? The country legend wrote the song as a way to remind himself to remain faithful to his then-wife Vivian while on tour with Elvis Presley. “It was kind of a prodding to myself to ‘Play it straight, Johnny,’” he told NPR. However, in other interviews, Cash said he wrote it as an oath to God. But Sam Phillips from Sun Records wasn’t too keen on a gospel song, so Cash managed to convince him it was actually about his wife.
2. “Man in Black”
In this iconic song, Cash recalls how he got his nickname, explaining he wears black to protest social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” However, in a 2002 interview with Larry King, Cash had another explanation for his dark wardrobe, revealing it’s his signature colour simply because he felt most comfortable in it.
3. “Ring of Fire”
According to the Carter-Cash family, June Carter-Cash and guitarist Merle Kilgore wrote this son about June falling in love with Johnny despite her anguish at his struggles with drugs and alcohol. However, his ex-wife Vivian says June had nothing to do with it, but that Johnny gave her a writing credit because he thought she needed the money. “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” she wrote in her autobiography.
4. “Folsom Prison Blues”
Perhaps Cash’s signature song, “Folsom Prison Blues” was the subject of a copyright infringement suit when it was released. Cash said he was inspired to write the song after watching the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, but unfortunately, that song already existed – “Crescent City Blues” by Gordon Jenkins. Cash later admitted he had heard the song while in the Air Force and may have subconsciously replicated the tune and some lyrics. He paid US$75,000 to Jenkins.
5. “Hey Porter”
This early song, inspired by then-wife Vivian, was inspired by Cash’s time in the Air Force. After three years in Germany, he decided not to reenlist and instead return home to his love. He wrote “Hey Porter” on the way home from Germany about his excitement and relief to finally be returning home.
6. “A Boy Named Sue”
In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party in which musicians such as Bob Dylan, Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell each debuted a new song. One of them, Shel Silverstein (songwriter and author of The Giving Tree), performed a new song titled “A Boy Named Sue”. After the party, Johnny took the lyrics with him on a flight to California, where he would record his famous At San Quentin album. He didn’t think he’d be able to learn the lyrics in time, but he did, and the US inmates loved it. After the album was released, the song quickly soared to number two on the charts.
Tell us in the comments below, what’s your all-time favourite Johnny Cash song?
Image credit: Baron Wolman.