Saturday Special from the Vaults: Intro and Chapter 1 of Johnny Cash: The Man in Black

I’ve posted the openings to my Enslow biographies of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix–guess it’s time to give Johnny Cash his due.

I enjoyed writing about Johnny Cash because a) he was a really interesting guy and b) I grew up listening to him. My folks liked country music, and Cash was one of their favorites.

My only regret was that I didn’t find a place in the book to mention that Cash liked to fish in northern Saskatchewan. Normally, I never pass up an opportunity to sneak a little Saskatchewan into a book.

Herewith the introduction and first chapter of Johnny Cash: The Man in Black.

And, of course, a link to where you can buy it.

Johnny Cash: The Man in Black

By Edward Willett


On January 13, 1968, a gray, gloomy Saturday, Johnny Cash entered Folsom State Prison in Repressa, California. With him were a crowd of musicians, technicians, photographers and reporters. Cash was about to do something no one had ever done before: record a live album in front of a crowd of prisoners.

With more than 3,500 inmates crowded into five enormous cellblocks, Folsom State Prison, the state’s second-oldest, held some of California’s worst offenders. About 2,000 prisoners assembled in the dining hall to hear the first of two shows. Armed guards patrolled overhead on walkways. The prisoners couldn’t be left in darkness, so the bright neon lights remained on throughout the concerts.

Marshall Grant, Cash’s long-time bass player, intended to bring Cash onstage with a big dramatic introduction as he always did, but Cash’s new producer, Bob Johnston, had other ideas. “All you gotta do,” he told Cash, “is walk out there and jerk your head around and say ‘Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.’”[1] Cash, he thought, “needed to assert control right from the start.”[2]

Cash took his advice. He walked out, grabbed the microphone, and said, “Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.”

It would become one of the most famous phrases in the history of American music.

The audience of prisoners exploded. Cash’s songs kept them at a high pitch of excitement and appreciation. He sang songs they could identify with, songs about prison and crime, loneliness and separation–and a few just for fun.

Unlike an audience on the outside, the prisoners didn’t just respond at the end of the song. Instead, they applauded whenever they heard a line they particularly identified with. Five tape machines running simultaneously in a truck in the prison yard captured their noisy appreciation and helped make not just a great live album, but what is generally considered one of the best live albums ever made.[3]

The album sold six million copies. It reached number 13 on the pop charts. It led directly to the equally popular Johnny Cash at San Quentin, which in turn led to Johnny Cash hosting his own television show on ABC. In 1969, Columbia Records announced that Johnny Cash had sold more records in the United States that year than the Beatles.

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison also solidified the public’s perception of Johnny Cash as an outlaw, a rebel who followed his own path, no matter what the cost.

Thirty years later, his reputation as a rebel with a cause–the cause of the ordinary man–led to an amazing comeback, as he released acclaimed albums that found a whole new audience among listeners who hadn’t even been born when he recorded at Folsom Prison.

But the Folsom Prison recording itself was an amazing comeback. At the time he recorded it, many people thought Johnny Cash was already washed up, a has-been who looked old before his time due to years of hard touring and drug abuse.

For Johnny Cash, the road to Folsom Prison and beyond was a rocky one. It began in the darkest years of the Great Depression, in one of the hardest-hit states: Arkansas.

Chapter 1: Early Days

Johnny Cash was born on February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas. He was the third son of Ray Cash and Carrie Rivers.

Ray Cash was from the nearby town of Rison. He had met Carrie in 1919 while he was working cutting lumber near Kingsland. During his time there, he boarded with Carrie’s parents, John and Rosanna. He was 22 and she was 15, but despite the age difference they married just a year later, on August 18, 1920. Their first son, Roy, was born in 1921. Their daughter, Margaret Louise, came along three years later, and their second son, Jack, was born in 1929.

When Johnny Cash was born, his mother wanted to name him John, after her father. Ray, on the other hand, wanted to name him Ray. When they couldn’t agree, they simply named him J.R.

Ray Cash was a sharecropper, a farmer who didn’t own his land, but was allowed to use it in exchange for sharing part of the crop with the landowner. Cash farmed cotton, but after the Great Depression hit, he couldn’t make a living at it. Between 1928 and 1932, the price of a five-hundred-pound bale of cotton dropped from $125 to $25.[4]

Sidebar: The Great Depression

When the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, it triggered the Great Depression. It was the worst economic collapse in modern history. Banks failed, businesses closed, and more than 15 million Americans, one quarter of the workforce, lost their jobs.

President Herbert Hoover called it “a passing incident.” He was wrong: it would last until the 1940s.

In 1932 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President on the promise of a “New Deal” for Americans to help deal with the ravages of the Depression. The Dyess Colony where Johnny Cash grew up was just one of many government programs aimed at helping people cope.

In an era when women typically didn’t have jobs outside the home, men were expected to provide for their wives and children. That made not being able to find work particularly hard on husbands and fathers, who found it humiliating to have to ask for assistance.[5]

Johnny Cash recalled later that Ray Cash had to take on whatever work he could find, wherever he could find it. He worked at a sawmill. He cleared land. He laid railroad track. “He did every kind of work imaginable, from painting to shoveling to herding cattle.”[6]

When Ray Cash couldn’t find work, he’d hunt, feeding his family with small game like rabbits, squirrels, and opossum. And sometimes, when he had to, he’d ride the rails, traveling “in boxcars, going from one harvest to another to try to make a little money picking fruits or vegetables.”[7]

“Our house was right on the railroad tracks, out in the woods, and one of my earliest memories is of seeing him jump out of a moving boxcar and roll down the ditch in front of our door,” Cash wrote in his second autobiography, published in 1997.[8]

A new deal

Then in 1934 the family got a chance at a better life. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had set up the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to help Americans hard-hit by the Depression. Among its programs was one that offered to relocated needy families to a brand-new, model community. Originally known as Colonization Project Number One, the new community was later renamed Dyess, after an Arkansas government administrator.

Dyess was built on 16,000 acres of reclaimed swampland in Mississippi County, Arkansas. It had a town hall, a movie theater, a cotton mill, a cannery, churches, a cotton mill, shops, a school, and a hospital. Families relocated to Dyess would each receive a brand-new house, 20 acres of land to clear and farm, a barn, a mule, a milk cow, and a hen coop.[9]

To apply, families had to answer questions covering everything from their debts to their church preference, farming experience and club affiliations. Initially the Cashes were told they hadn’t been accepted, but for some reason that decision was reversed, and on March 23, 1935, a truck arrived to carry the family from Kingsland to Dyess. J.R., his father, his two brothers and the family’s belongings rode in the back under a tarpaulin. J.R.’s mother and his two sisters (his second sister, Reba, had been born the year before) rode up front next to the driver.

The 250-mile drive took a day and a half on narrow and muddy roads. Cash said the first song he could remember singing was “I Am Bound for the Promised Land,” as he bounced in the back of the truck.[10] On March 24, the family arrived to House 266 on the dirt track known as Road Three. There they found “a newly five-room house, a barn, a mule, a chicken coop, (a) smokehouse and an outdoor toilet. No plumbing, no electricity.”[11] But it was theirs. For the Cashes, it really did look like the Promised Land.

Settling in Dyess

The Dyess colony families were expected to be largely self-sufficient, growing their own food. However, they were also expected to grow cotton, which they sold collectively, sharing in any profits from the cotton gin and the store.

As Ray Cash and his oldest son, Roy, cleared the land of the thick vegetation that covered it, the three younger children played and Carrie Cash gardened. She grew the fruits and vegetables the family would need for the next winter, then canned them at the community cannery. Home economists from the government taught canning, cooking, dressmaking and other homemaking skills to the new colonists. Children received regular medical check-ups. Dyess, Johnny said later, was really a “socialistic setup.”[12]

Ray Cash had to make a yearly payment of $111.41 on his house and land. He made each one promptly. Each farmer also received an advance payment on his crops each year. Cash was one of the few who always repaid that advance promptly. Thanks to his hard work, by 1940, he had enough money to make a down payment on a farm next door, which doubled his land from 20 to 45 acres. By 1945, he owned both his land and house. [13]

At times the land itself seemed to be working against him. In January of 1937, the nearby Tyronza River and one of the main drainage ditches flooded. Carrie and the younger children were evacuated to Kingsland. Ray and Roy tried to stay at the house, but after a week they had to leave, too.

When the Cashes returned home on February 16, they found their house covered with silt. Snakes were living in the barn and hens had laid eggs on the living room sofa. Driftwood littered the land. But the farm survived. In fact, Ray thought the silt actually improved the soil. Afterward, he was able to harvest two bales of cotton per acre, along with soybeans and corn.

Starting school and starting work

The year after the flood, 1938, J.R. Cash turned six years old and got a new baby sister, Joanne. He also started school. When he wasn’t in school, though, he was expected to help out in the cotton field. He started out carrying water to the bigger workers, but as he grew older, he picked cotton alongside his father and older siblings.

Picking cotton and stuffing it into a six-foot-long canvas sack he had to drag along behind him was hard work. Ray Cash made it even hotter. He wouldn’t let anyone slack off, and he had a quick, hot temper. According to Cash biographer Michael Streissguth, when Roy Cash, J.R.’s oldest brother, made a mistake or was impertinent, his father would rip the leather reins off the mule and whip him.[14]

Johnny Cash always said his father never laid a hand on him, but he admitted his father verbally abused him more than once. His father could be harsh in other ways. When J.R. was four years old, he made a pet out of a stray dog. About a year later, Ray shot the dog in the head with a .22. He didn’t tell his sons about it until they found the body. He claimed the dog had been eating scraps intended for fattening the hogs.

“I thought my world had ended that morning, that nothing was safe, that life wasn’t safe,” Cash wrote in his second autobiography. “It was a frightening thing, and it took a long time for me to get over it.”[15]

Aside from the movie theater, Dyess didn’t offer much culture. But at least it had music. People sang as they worked in the fields. In the Road Fifteen Church of God that Carrie made J.R. attend, guitars, mandolins and banjoes would sometimes accompany the music.

Music takes hold

All that music began to take hold of J.R.’s soul. After his father bought a battery-operated radio, and the house was full of music. On Sundays it was mostly church music, but the rest of the week it was country music. The first song Cash remembered hearing on the radio was “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride,” the sorry tale of a hobo who died of neglect. Sometimes the signals drifted in from such far-away exotic places as Cincinnati and Chicago.

Ray Cash thought J.R. was wasting time when he listened to the radio. Carrie Cash, however, loved music. She played the piano in church and sang to the children in the evenings. Her father had taught singing, and she wanted her family to have music in their lives as they grew up just like she had.[16] That family had expanded again with the birth of a final child, Tommy, in 1940.

“We sang in the house, on the porch, everywhere,” Cash remembered. “We sang in the fields…I’d start it off with pop songs I’d heard on the radio, and my sister Louise and I would challenge each other: ‘Bet you don’t know this one!’ Usually I knew them and I’d join in well before she’d finished.”[17]

Roy Cash, J.R.’s big brother, even played in a band. The Delta Rhythm Ramblers, an amateur band made up of him and four schoolmates, won first place in a local talent contest in 1939, the year J.R. was seven. But the Second World Ware ended Roy’s brief musical career. The Delta Rhythm Ramblers broke up in 1941 as its members were drafted into the armed forces. Roy himself joined the navy.

After Roy left, J.R.’s next-oldest brother, Jack, became his mentor.

J.R. and Jack

Jack impressed everyone who met him. Even though he was just a young teenager, he was already talking about becoming a Baptist minister. J.R., two years younger, idolized him. Not only did Jack seem tougher and smarter than everyone else, he also seemed more Christian. “There was nobody in the world as good and as wise and as strong as my big brother Jack,” Cash wrote years later.[18]

J.R. went to church twice on Sundays and attended Bible study every Wednesday night. Influenced by that and by Jack’s example, early in 1944 he decided give his life to Christ. He was 12 years old, the “age of accountability,” when a child is old enough to decide whether or not he will be a Christian.

As the congregation at First Baptist Church in Dyess sang the old hymn “Just As I Am” on February 26, 1944, J.R. walked down the aisle to the front of the church. Jack was sitting in the front row. J.R. took the preacher’s hand, then knelt at the altar. “It was like a birthday rolling around,” he wrote in his first autobiography. ”I felt brand-new, born again.”[19] He also felt closer to Jack than ever before.

But then came Saturday, May 12, 1944.

J.R. decided to go fishing in one of the large drainage ditches. He asked Jack to go with him, but Jack refused. He was heading to the school workshop, where he earned extra money by cutting fence posts.

The two brothers started out walking together, then separated. About noon J.R. headed for home. As he reached the place where he and Jack had split up, he saw a Model A Ford heading toward him. The preacher was driving. J.R. father was with him. Ray Cash told J.R. to throw away his fishing pole and get in, and J.R. knew something terrible had happened.

As they drove on, Ray told J.R. that Jack had been badly hurt. He’d been pulled onto the circular saw in the school workshop. The blade had ripped through his clothes and into his stomach.

Jack lingered for a few days. On May 20, he asked his mother whether she could hear the angels singing. He told her he could hear them, and that was where he was going. Then he died. “After Jack’s death I felt like I’d died, too,” Cash wrote in his second autobiography. “I was terribly lonely without him. I had no other friend.”[20]

Even worse, J.R.’s father blamed him for Jack’s death. “Ray told him bluntly that he should have died rather than his faithful brother, and he had no business going fishing while Jack was out working for the family,” Steve Turner wrote in his authorized biography, The Man Called Cash.[21]

The tragedy, his own guilt, and his father’s accusation had one positive outcome: it kick-started J.R.’s creativity. “It’s when I started writing,” Cash said. “I was trying to put down what I was feeling.”[22]

“Putting down what he was feeling” would eventually make Johnny Cash one of the greatest American songwriters in history.

But in 1944, his first steps along the road to fame were still more than a decade away.


[1] Streissguth, Michael. Johnny Cash : the biography. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2006, p. 150.

[2] Turner, Steve. The Man Called Cash. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2004, p. 124.

[3] Kot, Greg. “A Critical Discography.” Cash: by the Editors of Rolling Stone. New York: Crown Publishers, 2004, p. 188.



[4] Turner, Steve. The Man Called Cash. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2004, p. 17.

[5] “The American Experience: Surviving the Dust Bowl: The Great Depression.” <>, (May 16, 2008).

[6] Gross, Terry. “Interview with Johnny Cash.” Fresh Air (National Public Radio), August 21, 1998.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cash, Johnny, with Carr, Patrick. Johnny Cash: The Autobiography. New York: HarperCollins, 1997, p. 5.

[9] Turner, p. 17.

[10] Cash and Carr, p. 13.

[11] Harrington, Richard. “Walking the Line; Johnny Cash’s Craggy Legend,” The Washington Post, December 8, 1996.

[12] Cash, Johnny. Man in Black. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975, p.24.

[13] Streissguth, Michael. Johnny Cash : the biography. Cambridge : Da Capo Press, 2006, p. 13.

[14] Ibid, p. 16.

[15] Cash and Carr, pp. 237-238.

[16] Turner, p. 20.

[17] Cash and Carr, p. 71.

[18] Cash, p. 34.

[19] Ibid, p. 38.

[20] Cash and Carr, p. 37.

[21] Ibid, p. 23.

[22] Ibid, p. 25.

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