Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Apple #201: Johnny Cash Songs

So the other day, Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" was playing over the loudspeaker in a store. If you don't know it, here are a few key lines:
Well, I hit him hard right between the eyes
And he went down, but to my surprise,
He come up with a knife and cut off a piece of my ear.

Someone nearby remarked, "Ah, A Boy Named Sue. Courtesy of good old Shel Silverstein."

"Shel Silverstein wrote this?" I said in shock. Absolutely yes, was the reply. "Wow," I said. "The Giving Tree and your dad cutting off your ear. Naturally both would be written by the same guy."

So now I want to know, just how many songs that I think of as synonymous with Johnny Cash were actually written by someone else?

In the case of some songs he's performed, I did know he hadn't written them. That Nine Inch Nails song, "Hurt," for example. That was obviously a cover, since I heard NIN perform it on the radio a kajillion times first.

And "Ring of Fire" I knew he didn't write; his wife, June Carter, wrote it. She wrote it before they were married, when they were married to other people. It is about how consumed she felt by her love for Johnny Cash, even though she knew it constituted adultery and might get her burning in hell.
Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bound by wild desire
I fell into a ring of fire.

By the way, if you want to hear the best account, ever, of how Johnny & June fell in love, listen to Sarah Vowell's "Greatest Love Story of the 20th Century" on a This American Life broadcast called What Is This Thing? (It's Episode 247; you have to scroll down to find it).

Another Johnny Cash cover that I knew about is "Sunday Morning Coming Down", written by Kris Kristofferson, and which speaks to Johnny's days when he was hooked on barbituates and was country music's super-bad-ass:
On a Sunday morning sidewalk
I'm wishing Lord that I was stoned
'Cause there's something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothin' short of dyin'
That's half as lonesome as the sound
Of a sleepin' city sidewalk
And Sunday mornin' comin' down.

While we're on the subject of Johnny's bad old days, I have to repeat this story told by U2's Bono, and which I found in a Mars Hill Review of Cash's records:
"We bowed our heads and John spoke this beautiful, poetic grace," Bono notes in Rolling Stone, "and we were all humbled and moved. Then he looked up afterwards and said, 'Sure miss the drugs, though.'"

Speaking of U2, Cash sang the lyrics on U2's "The Wanderer," on the often-overlooked Zooropa.
I went walking
looking for one good man
a spirit who would not bend or break
who would stand at his father's right hand.
I went out walking with a Bible and a gun.

"Highway Patrolman," about a policeman whose brother may or may not have shot a man and who watches while his brother flees to Canada, was written by Bruce Springsteen.
Me and Frankie, laughin' and drinkin'
Nothin' feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria
As the band played "Night of the Johnstown Flood"
I catch him when he's strayin', like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain't no good.

"Down There by the Train" is about how everyone can get saved and sounds an awful lot like the kind of thing Johnny Cash would say. But it was originally written by Tom Waits.
You can hear the whistle, you can hear the bell
From the halls of heaven to the gates of hell
And there's room for the forsaken if you're there on time
You'll be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes
If you're down there by the train
Down there by the train.

Now for some songs you all know as Johnny Cash's, and that he wrote himself:

Delia's Gone
Disturbing, yes. But the song does have a certain ring to it.
First time I shot her, I shot her in the side
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died
Delia's gone, one more round, Delia's gone.

I Walk The Line
This is Johnny Cash's pledge to remain faithful to June
As sure as night is dark and day is light
I keep you on my mind both day and night
And happiness I've known proves that it's right
Because you're mine,
I walk the line.

Folsom Prison Blues
Written not when Johnny was in jail -- he never served time in prison -- but in the Air Force
When I was just a baby, my mama told me, "Son,
Always be a good boy; don't ever play with guns."
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
When I hear that whistle blowin' I hang my head and cry.

Man in Black
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' 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.

He never in his life learned to read music.

Matthew Blair's Johnny Cash fan site, The Man in Black, especially his Written versus Performed by page, Johnny Cash
Biography of Johnny Cash, from, Marriage, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
Dave Urbanski, "Mean Eyed Cat, Kneeling Drunkard's Plea, and the Wayfaring Stranger," Mars Hill Review
Lyrics from lots of places including Lyrics Depot, Cowboy Lyrics, Lyrics4All

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