The Stories Behind 10 Famous Johnny Cash Songs

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Johnny Cash 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 up Cash's discography 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.

1. "Man in Black"

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.

2. "Chicken in Black"

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.”

3. "I Walk the Line"

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.

4. "A Boy Named Sue"

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.

5. "Ring of Fire"

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. (Several years later, a hemorrhoid ointment tried to turn it into their jingle.)

6. "The Man Comes Around"

“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.”

7. "Hey Porter"

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.

8. "Folsom Prison Blues"

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.

10. "Get Rhythm"

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.

This article originally ran in 2014.

10 Facts About the Beastie Boys's 'Sabotage' Video

Beastie Boys via YouTube
Beastie Boys via YouTube

With their raucous mix of rock and hip-hop, the Beastie Boys were a band everyone could love. They also made killer music videos, and their 1994 video for “Sabotage” is arguably one of the greatest in the history of the medium. Directed by Spike Jonze and inspired by ‘70s cop shows, “Sabotage” finds the Beasties in cheesy suits, wigs, and mustaches, cavorting around L.A. like a bunch of bootleg Starskys and Hutches. If you were alive in the ‘90s, you’ve seen “Sabotage” a million times, but there’s a lot you might not know about this iconic video.

1. It all began with a photo shoot.

Spike Jonze met the Beastie Boys when he photographed them for Dirt magazine in the early 1990s. The band showed up with its own concept. “For years, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz had been talking about doing a photo session as undercover cops—wearing ties and fake mustaches and sitting in a car like we were on a stakeout,” Adam “MCA” Yauch told New York Magazine. Jonze loved the idea so much he tagged along when the Beasties went wig shopping. “Then, while he was taking the pictures, he was wearing this blond wig and mustache the whole time,” Yauch said. “For no apparent reason.” So was born a friendship that begat “Sabotage.”

2. Spike Jonze filmed “Sabotage” without permits.

The Beasties weren’t big fans of high-budget music videos with tons of people on the set. So they asked Jonze to hire a couple of assistants and run the whole production out of a van. “Then we just ran around L.A. without any permits and made everything up as we went along,” MCA told New York. They’re lucky the real cops never showed up.

3. The Beastie Boys did all their own stunt driving.

After binge-watching VHS tapes of The Streets of San Francisco and other ‘70s cop shows, the Beasties knew they needed some sweet chase scenes. “We bought a car that was about to die,” Mike D told Vanity Fair. “We just drove the car ourselves. We almost killed the car a couple of times, but we definitely didn’t come close to killing ourselves.”

4. “Sabotage” inspired the opening sequence of Trainspotting.

Danny Boyle's 1996 film Trainspotting famously opens with Ewan McGregor and his buddies running through the streets of Edinburgh to the tune of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” In the DVD commentary, Boyle revealed that the scene was inspired by “Sabotage.”

5. Two cameras were harmed in the making of “Sabotage.”

“Sabotage” was supposed to be a low-budget affair—and it would’ve been, had Jonze been a little more careful with his rented cameras. He destroyed a Canon Scoopic when the Ziploc bag he used to protect the camera during an underwater shot proved less than airtight. He apparently told the rental agency the camera stopped working on its own, but he wasn’t as lucky when an Arriflex SR3 fell out of a van window. That cost $84,000, effectively tripling the cost of the video.

6. MCA crashed the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards to protest “Sabotage” being shut out.

At the 1994 MTV VMAs, “Sabotage” was nominated for five awards, including Video of the Year. In one of the great injustices of all time, it lost in all five categories. When R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” won Best Direction, MCA invaded the stage dressed as Nathanial Hörnblowér, his Swiss uncle/filmmaker alter-ego. “Since I was a small boy, I had dreamed that Spike would win this,” MCA said as a confused Michael Stipe looked on. “Now this has happened, and I want to tell everyone this is a farce, and I had the ideas for Star Wars and everything.”

7. There’s a “Sabotage” comic book you can download for free.

After MCA’s death in 2012, artist Derek Langille created a seven-page “Sabotage” comic book in tribute to the fallen musician and filmmaker. You can download it for free here.

8. There’s also a “Sabotage” novel.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Sabotage,” Oakland-based author and Beasties super-fan Jeff Gomez wrote a five-act novel inspired by the video. He spent months researching cop movies and real-life police lingo, and he watched “Sabotage” about 100 times, keeping a detailed spreadsheet of all the action unfolding onscreen. “They created a really great universe, and I just wanted to play around in it for a little bit,” Gomez told PBS.

9. There’s a “Sabotage”/Sesame Street mashup on YouTube.

In 2017, YouTuber Is This How You Go Viral, a.k.a. Adam Schleichkorn, created the video “Sesametage,” a reimagining of “Sabotage” made with edited bits of Sesame Street. It stars Big Bird as himself, The Count as Cochese, and Oscar the Grouch as Bobby, “The Rookie.” Super Grover, Telly, Cookie Monster, and Bert and Ernie also turn up in this hilarious spoof of a spoof.

10. “Sabotage” nearly became a movie—kind of.

Jonze and the Beasties had such a blast making “Sabotage” that they wrote a script for a feature film called We Can Do This. The movie, which they later abandoned, was set to feature MCA in two roles: Sir Stuart Wallace, one of his “Sabotage” characters, and Nathaniel Hörnblowér (whom he portrayed during that 1994 VMAs protest). Jonze told IndieWire the film would’ve been “ridiculous and fun,” which sounds like the understatement of the century. “There were no 1970s cops in it, but it was definitely in the same spirit,” he said.

15 Slick Facts About Grease

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease (1978).
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease (1978).
Paramount Home Entertainment

The movie Grease (1978), based on the musical of the same name, is about to be reimagined for a new generation. HBO Max just announced that it will be premiering Grease: Rydell High, a musical series inspired by the film. In the 1978 big-screen adaptation, John Travolta played tough guy Danny Zuko and Olivia Newton-John starred as sweet Sandy Olsson, two teenagers whose summer romance suddenly blossoms into a full-fledged high school love affair.

Shot on a budget of $6 million budget, Grease made nearly $400 million at the box office—making it one of the highest-grossing musical movies of all time.

1. Henry Winkler turned down the role of Danny Zuko.

As far as Henry Winkler was concerned, Danny Zuko was too similar to Fonzie, the tough guy with a heart of gold he was already playing on Happy Days.

2. Marie Osmond and Susan Dey said no to playing Sandy.

Marie Osmond told Larry King that she turned the part down because she “didn’t want my teenagers some day to say, you know, ‘You have to go bad to get the boy.’ It was just a personal choice as a some day mother.” Dey (Laurie on The Partridge Family) didn’t want to play another teenager. Director Randal Kleiser went to the Star Wars mixing stage to visit his college roommate, George Lucas, and to see Carrie Fisher in one of the battle scenes. But Kleiser couldn’t tell from the scene whether Fisher was right for the part, so he kept looking. In 1998, Travolta revealed he heard singer Linda Ronstadt was also in consideration.

3. Olivia Newton-John insisted on having a screen test with john travolta.

Producer/co-writer Allan Carr met Olivia Newton-John at a party thrown by fellow Australian singer Helen Reddy and was “completely smitten” and begged her to sign on for the part. Travolta told The Morning Call that he rallied for Newton-John to get the part, too. Not trusting her good fortune or her acting (her previous film, Toomorrow, had been released back in 1970), Newton-John requested a screen test with Travolta to make sure they had chemistry.

4. Andy Warhol and an adult film star would have been cast if Paramount hadn’t stepped in.

Carr wanted Warhol to play the art teacher. One unnamed studio executive said he would not have “that man” in the movie, which Carr interpreted as the executive having a personal vendetta against the legendary artist. Carr also wanted porn star Harry Reems to play Coach Calhoun and offered him the part after a screening of Casablanca at Hugh Hefner’s mansion. The studio wouldn’t have it. “They bounced me out of the cast,” Reems said. “They thought they might lose some play dates in the South.” Carr felt so badly about it that he wrote Reems a personal check for $5000.

5. Lorenzo Lamas landed a role when a president’s son backed out.

Gerald Ford’s son, Steven, was too nervous to play Tom Chisum, Sandy’s jock boyfriend, who had a grand total of zero lines. Lamas (later Lance Cumson on Falcon Crest and Hector Ramírez on The Bold and the Beautiful) jumped at the chance, agreeing to lighten his dark hair because he looked too much like a T-Bird. "I would have dyed it green, fuchsia, anything," Lamas told People.

6. Most of the main actors were far too old to be in high school.

Stockard Channing (Rizzo) was 34 when the film was released. Newton-John was 29. Jeff Conaway (Kenickie) was 27. Travolta was 24. Jamie Donnelly (Jan) was 30 during filming, and had to dye her hair from her premature grey to black. Her hair grew back so quickly that her roots had to be colored in with a black crayon every day.

7. The title song was written by Barry Gibb, and Peter Frampton played guitar.

Kleiser didn’t like this song because he thought the lyrics were too dark and not fitting of the 1950s. Kleiser asked Gibb to make the lyrics more upbeat; Gibb told Kleiser he should shoot a serious scene to match the song. It became a number one single in the United States.

8. Rizzo’s hickeys were real.

Conaway gave Channing a real hickey because he wanted it to be authentic. Conaway was also so infatuated with Newton-John that he was tongue-tied whenever she was around. He later married Olivia’s sister, Rona.

9. "Greased Lightnin'" was supposed to be sung by Jeff Conaway, not John Travolta.

Travolta’s two conditions for agreeing to play Danny were that he could sing “Greased Lightnin',” even though Kenickie sang it in the stage production; and that he had to have “blue black hair like Elvis Presley and Rock Hudson in the movies” because “it’s surreal and it’s very 1950s.” The star also argued with Kleiser over the end of the song “Sandy”; he wanted a close-up of himself instead of the cartoon shot of a hot dog diving into a bun. Kleiser got his way.

10. Coca-Cola signs were (mostly) blacked out.

Carr made a promotional deal with Pepsi; the set decorator didn't know that. When the producer saw footage from the movie featuring Coke products he went “ballistic,” according to Kleiser. The Coca-Cola logos were blocked out with an optical printer. They couldn’t alter the Coke cooler, because it was impossible to cover with the technology available at the time. Pepsi never complained. They would have unblocked the Coke signs when the Pepsi deal expired before the 20th anniversary re-release if the original print hadn’t been lost.

11. Travolta kept flubbing a word so much it was kept in the movie.

Travolta kept lip-syncing "heap lap trials" instead of "heat lap trials," and Kleiser claims you could see this in the finished product. Kleiser believed Travolta was distracted after reading a magazine article that morning about his recently deceased girlfriend, Diana Hyland, who had passed away from cancer.

12. Travolta got more of the stage script into the movie.

Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, who wrote the original musical’s book, weren’t invited on set during production of the movie. Travolta had played Danny more than 100 times on the road doing the musical, and gradually got more lines from Jacobs and Casey’s version into the film, which was written by Carr and Bronté Woodard. When Travolta didn’t think a line of dialogue was working, he would quote a line from the original, and Kleiser would tend to agree and use that line instead.

13. That Elvis Presley lyric is creepy.

In “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” Rizzo sings “Elvis, Elvis, let me be, keep that pelvis far from me,” while looking at a picture of The King. That scene was shot on August 16, 1977—the day Presley died. “It was very eerie,” Kleiser told The New York Post. “It was all over the news, so everyone knew. We did this number, and everybody kind of looked at each other like, ‘Yeah, this is creepy.’” When Carr first bought the film rights to Grease, he envisioned Elvis as Danny and Ann-Margret as Sandy. According to Broadway.com, Presley was offered the role of Teen Angel but turned it down.

14. Olivia Newton-John was sewn into those spandex pants.

"They sewed me into those pants every morning for a week," Newton-John said. "Believe me, I had to be very careful about what I ate and drank. It was excruciating." It was 106 degrees on the set for the carnival finale.

15. George Lucas helped get the movie re-released.

In 1997, Kleiser called Sherry Lansing, then head of Paramount, and insisted that Grease had to come back again for its 20th anniversary. Lansing informed Kleiser that George Lucas had called her a few days earlier and said that out of all of the movies in the Paramount vault, Grease is the one that should come back. The Star Wars creator explained that every nine-year-old he knew watched a VHS copy of Grease every day.

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