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Music History #9: "Watergate Blues"

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“Watergate Blues”
Written and performed by Tom T. Hall (1973)

The Music

Back in the early days of country music, songs were often like newspaper articles, written and sung to spread the news of some topical event. In 1973, country storyteller-songwriter Tom T. Hall revisited this idea with “Watergate Blues.” In three minutes, Hall sums up the entire 1972 election, and the subsequent break-in and wire-tapping of the Democratic National Committee that exploded into the political scandal of the century. Hall’s song was never a big hit, but it was a concert favorite during the time. (You can hear it here.)

The History

The run-up to the presidential election of 1972 was typically nasty. Democratic candidate George McGovern’s first choice running mate, Thomas Eagleton, was forced off the ticket when it was discovered that he’d had a history of depression. Republicans suggested there had been “shock therapy” involved and that was the end of Eagleton. Conservative pundits also pinned a damaging slogan on McGovern, claiming he was for “amnesty, abortion and acid” (McGovern had suggested that possession of small amounts of marijuana be treated as a misdemeanor, and that was twisted into his supposed support for “acid”).

On June 17, 1972, in Washington, D.C., five men were arrested for trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. (Watergate, often remembered as a hotel, actually included an odd variety of businesses, from a museum of paleontology to an armor repair center.) The idea for the break-in came from one of Nixon’s underlings, G. Gordon Liddy. Liddy was the type of guy who, at a party, would hold his hand directly into a candle flame for laughs. For him, burglarizing and wire-tapping were a necessary means to an end – namely, driving the Democratic party into shambles.

Though a GOP security aide was among the burglars, the Nixon camp initially denied any link to the Watergate break-in. But after a $25,000 cashier’s check, earmarked for the Nixon campaign, ended up in the account of one of the burglars, the hunt was on.

None of this affected Nixon in the voting booths, and he trounced McGovern in November 1972.

But Watergate didn’t go away. Over the next two years, relentless investigation by the FBI, a grand jury, a senate committee, a special prosecutor and two newspaper reporters revealed an undercover operation that brought down the Nixon administration.

Deep Throat

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had a secret informant on Capitol Hill. Their editor dubbed this source “Deep Throat,” as a nod to a porn movie that was controversial at the time. The reporters met Deep Throat several times in an underground parking garage in Washington, D.C., at 2 am, and got leads for their investigation. What did Deep Throat get in return? The satisfaction of protecting the justice system from presidential abuse, according to Woodward. But thirty years later, when Deep Throat’s identity was revealed as William Mark Felt, a former Deputy Director of the FBI, several books speculated that he was angling for the FBI Director’s job. The leaks did hurt Director L. Patrick Gray, a friend of Nixon’s who’d been chosen over Felt, but Felt never got the coveted position.

Whatever his motivation, Deep Throat’s tips helped Woodward and Bernstein piece together the convoluted puzzle of the Watergate break-in.

By early 1973, heads were rolling. In January, two former Nixon aides, Liddy and James McCord, were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping. Two months later, top White House staffers H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, all resigned.

“I Am Not A Crook”

The summer of 1973 featured the televised Senate Watergate hearings, a political cultural spectacle the likes of which had never been seen in America. The star of the show was folksy Democratic senator Sam Ervin. Grilling all the President’s men, and spouting lines like, “I think this is the greatest tragedy this country has ever suffered,” Ervin became the mouthpiece for America’s growing disillusionment over a corrupt government.

If Nixon never knew about the initial break-in (in one of his famous televised denials, he said, “I am not a crook”), he was actively involved in both the cover-up and trying to plug the continuous leaks of information coming from his administration. Especially after a damning testimony by White House aide Alexander Butterfield, who revealed that all of Nixon’s conversations with his staff were tape-recorded, and those tapes still existed.

From then on, Nixon’s daily life became, like Tom T. Hall’s song title, a non-stop Watergate Blues.

Nixon Resigns

Suddenly, everyone was after those tapes. Nixon didn’t want to give them up. His solution, which he presented to the American people in a televised news conference, was to release transcripts of the tapes. It was a stall that only worked for a while. In a Supreme Court ruling, Nixon was forced to hand over all the tapes to investigators. The tapes revealed in no uncertain terms the corruption of the administration.

Pressure against Nixon grew. Even staunch supporters abandoned him. The House of Representatives were poised to recommend Impeachment proceedings. Then on August 9th, 1974, Nixon resigned the presidency.

Many of his top aides went to prison. Nixon was pardoned by the next president, Gerald Ford.

The Legacy

Forty years later, some believe that Watergate marks a turning point when America lost its innocence and became cynical (though the same was said of JFK’s assassination). It helped usher in the bitter, angry, polarized politics we see now, the cause of all the paralysis in government, along with a new, aggressive attitude of the media.

But there was a positive side to Watergate. It proved that our system can work. As nasty as the whole affair became, the Constitution and the law ultimately prevailed over the excesses of corrupt politicians (despite Nixon’s pardon, 69 government officials were charged, and 48 were found guilty).

To the day he died in 1994, Nixon claimed he was innocent of any wrongdoing in Watergate.

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One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

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The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
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Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once 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, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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