SONG: I Walk the Line
ARTIST: Johnny Cash
Listen to it here:
Walk the Line was written by Johnny Cash, recorded by him in April of 1956 and released in May of the same year. It sold over 2 million copies and was on the charts for over 43 weeks. Cash states when he wrote the song he was newly married and the lyrics were his ‘pledge of devotion’. Cash recorded the song a total of 3 times – first in 1956 as a single, then again in 1964 for the I Walk the Line album and finally in 1969 for At San Quentin. Cash originally wrote the song as a slow ballad but was convinced by Sam Phillips to speed it up. The song employs the “freight train” rhythm that show up in a lot of Johnny Cash songs.
J R Cash was born February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. As a child he worked in the cotton fields with his 6 brothers and sisters, singing along with them as they worked. Living through the Depression and seeing poverty gave Cash a great appreciate for the struggling class for a lot of his life and inspired many of his songs. At 12 Cash was listening to gospel on the radio and learning guitar from his mother. After high school he enlisted in the Air Force and was honourably discharged in 1954. Upon his return to America (Texas, more specifically) Cash worked as a salesman while studying to be a radio announcer, but he never fully gave up on singing. After singing gospel tunes in a rockabilly style, Cash was signed by Sam Phillips in 1955 and released a few minor hits. Cash’s next album was Folsom Prison Blues made the country charts and the single I Walk the Line hit number 1 on the country charts and broke onto the pop charts as well. Despite his album’s success, Cash was unhappy with the label due to not being able to record gospel and the below market percentage he earned for his recordings so he signed with Columbia in 1958. Cash earned the nickname the ‘undertaker’ due to his penchant for black clothes, but claimed he wore them as they were easier to keep clean on tour.
Cash’s career really started rocketing in the late 1950s and started drinking and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. The late 1950s also saw the beginning of Cash’s string of performances in prisons, the first of which being at San Quentin State Prison in 1958 (others being Folsom Prison, Osteraker Prison in Sweden and Tennessee State Prison). Cash also had a deep passion for the plight of the oppressed Native Americans and wrote an album dedicated to and featuring different indigenous tribes. Country music radio stations balked at his activism and decided not to play the songs, deeming them “unappealing”. Despite his struggles, he released Ring of Fire which proved to be a cross over hit. The addictions took their toll however, and in 1967 his first wife Vivian filed for divorce. He had to cancel performances, but recorded the song “Jackson” with June Carter and won a Grammy. June Carter and her siblings moved into Cash’s house to help him get clean, and Cash proposed to June Carter onstage on February 22 1968 in London Ontario (they married a year later). Cash also started his own television show on ABC which saw him feature many musical acts, but by the 1970s Cash saw his popularity begin to wane and by the 1980s his albums were no longer on the charts. He relapsed on painkillers and eventually checked himself into the Betty Ford Centre. Cash continued to write and record through the 1980s and 1990s but saw a huge personal blow when June died on May 15, 2003. Cash had told producer Rick Rubin to give him something to do because he would die if he wasn’t working. Not even work could mend Johnny’s broken heart, and he passed of diabetes complications September 12, 2003, less than 4 months after June’s passing.
Johnny was not allowed to use his birthname, the initials J R on his Air Force application, so instead he wrote Johnny.
In 1965 Cash’s camper caught fire while on a trip in Los Padres National Forest in California. It caused a forest fire that destroyed 508 acres, burned foliage off three mountains and drove off 49 of the park’s 53 endangered California condors.
Although arrested 7 times, Cash never served prison time.
Oh Johnny Cash. I feel like Johnny Cash is one of the very few reasons why I can’t say that I hate country music. This is yet another song that’s difficult to fairly judge due to how ubiquitous it is. I mean, if you say “name a Johnny Cash song” it’s gonna be this one or Ring of Fire. And honestly for someone like me who has said that they like Johnny Cash, I know a surprisingly little amount of his songs, and he seems very prolific. Anyway, I feel like Walk the Line is pretty peak Johnny. He’s got his typical train-on-the-tracks type of rhythm happening and once again like last week we have the bass line being played on the low E string of the guitar. I don’t think I can even hear an actual bass here? It sounds like just guitar, and brushes on a snare drum. I also kind of feel like he just starts the verses and chorus whenever he’s ready, and the band just kind of waits for him and follows him. And by the band I mean the one drummer. Maybe he only has the one drum? Anyway. I really like Johnny’s voice, but I’m finding I do NOT like his higher register as much as I like the lower register. When I think of Johnny Cash I think of bass baritone, so hearing the first verse of Walk the Line in the higher octave was a bit jarring. His bassier register just sounds better, more natural and I kind of wish he had sung the whole song in the lower octave. I know this song was written when he married his first wife, but I feel like it’s more about June and trying to keep straight while he was with her. This song is simple in arrangement and message, and I think it’s a must have for any fan of north american music.
I have a bit of a weird relationship with Johnny Cash. You know how a lot of people in their teenage years get obsessed with a band from another era, but then eventually grow out of it or grow to hate them (ahem, every moody teenager with a Jim Morrison poster on their wall)? Now, I don’t hate Johnny Cash, but I did go through a short love of him after hearing this song. But then I tried to listen to all of Johnny Cash (with the help of Napster….remember those days?) and was disappointed. I really feel like for a big chunk of his career, Johnny was phoning it in. But then, he reinvented himself with that covers album with Hurt and other songs in the early aughts. Either way, I’m very confused by Johnny Cash.
This song, though, is one I have always loved. It’s really simple in terms of the guitar, and bass, which are both doing bass lines weirdly enough, and then that weird sounding washboard or whatever it is chunking away like a rhythm guitar without pitch, and a drum kit without personality. But Johnny steals the show. His voice is dark, mellow, low, and really intriguing. It’s weird how he hums the pitch he’s about to sing before every verse, but not super off-putting. I hate the bad fade out ending, but I feel like this is young Johnny Cash in his prime, and I’m here for it! I can just forget the 40-odd years of phone-ins!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
The Carter Family:
A modern take by Halsey
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