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.

11 Surprising Facts About Prince

BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

It was three years ago today that legendary, genre-bending rocker Prince died at the age of 57. In addition to being a musical pioneer, the Minneapolis native dabbled in filmmaking, most successfully with 1984’s Purple Rain. While most people know about the singer’s infamous name change, here are 10 things you might not have known about the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

1. His real name was Prince.

Born to two musical parents on June 7, 1958, Prince Rogers Nelson was named after his father's jazz combo.

2. He was a Jehovah's Witness.

Baptized in 2001, Prince was a devout Jehovah's Witness; he even went door-to-door. In October 2003, a woman in Eden Prairie, Minnesota opened her door to discover the famously shy artist and his bassist, former Sly and the Family Stone member Larry Graham, standing in front of her home. "My first thought is ‘Cool, cool, cool. He wants to use my house for a set. I’m glad! Demolish the whole thing! Start over!,'" the woman told The Star Tribune. "Then they start in on this Jehovah’s Witnesses stuff. I said, ‘You know what? You’ve walked into a Jewish household, and this is not something I’m interested in.’ He says, 'Can I just finish?' Then the other guy, Larry Graham, gets out his little Bible and starts reading scriptures about being Jewish and the land of Israel."

3. He wrote a lot of songs for other artists.

In addition to penning several hundred songs for himself, Prince also composed music for other artists, including "Manic Monday" for the Bangles, "I Feel For You" for Chaka Khan, and "Nothing Compares 2 U" for Sinéad O'Connor.

4. His symbol actually had a name.


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Even though the whole world referred to him as either "The Artist" or "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince," that weird symbol Prince used was actually known as "Love Symbol #2." It was copyrighted in 1997, but when Prince's contract with Warner Bros. expired at midnight on December 31, 1999, he announced that he was reclaiming his given name.

5. In 2017, Pantone gave him his own color.

A little over a year after Prince's death, global color authority Pantone created a royal shade of purple in honor of him, in conjunction with the late singer's estate. Appropriately, it is known as Love Symbol #2. The color was inspired by a Yamaha piano the musician was planning to take on tour with him. “The color purple was synonymous with who Prince was and will always be," Troy Carter, an advisor to Prince's estate, said. "This is an incredible way for his legacy to live on forever."

6. His sister sued him.

In 1987, Prince's half-sister, Lorna Nelson, sued him, claiming that she had written the lyrics to "U Got the Look," a song from "Sign '☮' the Times" that features pop artist Sheena Easton. In 1989, the court sided with Prince.

7. He ticked off a vice president's wife.

In 1984, after purchasing the Purple Rain soundtrack for her then-11-year-old daughter, Tipper Gore—ex-wife of former vice president Al Gore—became enraged over the explicit lyrics of "Darling Nikki," a song that references masturbation and other graphic sex acts. Gore felt that there should be some sort of warning on the label and in 1985 formed the Parents Music Resource Center, which pressured the recording industry to adopt a ratings system similar to the one employed in Hollywood. To Prince's credit, he didn't oppose the label system and became one of the first artists to release a "clean" version of explicit albums.

8. Prince took a promotional tip from Willy Wonka.

In 2006, Universal hid 14 purple tickets—seven in the U.S. and seven internationally—inside Prince's album, 3121. Fans who found a purple ticket were invited to attend a private performance at Prince's Los Angeles home.

9. He simultaneously held the number one spots for film, single, and album.

During the week of July 27, 1984, Prince's film Purple Rain hit number one at the box office. That same week, the film's soundtrack was the best-selling album and "When Doves Cry" was holding the top spot for singles.

10. He screwed up on SNL.

During Prince's first appearance on Saturday Night Live, he performed the song "Partyup" and sang the lyric, "Fightin' war is a such a f*ing bore." It went unnoticed at the time, but in the closing segment, Charles Rocket clearly said, "I'd like to know who the f* did it." This was the only episode of SNL where the f-bomb was dropped twice.

11. He scrapped an album released after having "a spiritual epiphany."

In 1987, Prince was due to release "The Black Album." However, just days before it was scheduled to drop, Prince scrapped the whole thing, calling it "dark and immortal." The musician claimed to have reached this decision following "a spiritual epiphany." Some reports say that it was actually an early experience with drug ecstasy, while others suggested The Artist just knew it would flop.

This story has been updated for 2019.

12 Soulful Facts About Aretha Franklin

American singer Aretha Franklin, circa 1968.
American singer Aretha Franklin, circa 1968.
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Before she was a global sensation, Aretha Louise Franklin was a young girl with a big voice. She was born in a tiny home in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942 to C.L. and Barbara Franklin. Her parents, a well-known Baptist minister and a talented singer and musician, laid the groundwork for their daughter's roots in the gospel traditions of the church early on. When she was 5, the family moved to Detroit when her father took over as pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church, and it later became the center of the Civil Rights Movement in Detroit. It was there that Aretha Franklin's talents and views grew.

Though she became known as the Queen of Soul, Franklin's music was genre-bending—it touched on everything from gospel to pop—and her songs topped the R&B charts as well as the pop charts. Here's what you should know about the artist whose career spanned some six decades before her death from a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor on August 16, 2018, at the age of 76.

  1. Aretha Franklin knew Sam Cooke from childhood and wanted to emulate his career.

In the early 1950s, Franklin met Cooke—who is often referred to as the King of Soul—at her church. "I was sitting there waiting for the program to start after church, and I just happened to look back over my shoulder and I saw this group of people coming down the aisle," she told NPR in 1999. "And, oh, my God, the man that was leading them—Sam and his brother L.C. These guys were really super sharp. They had on beautiful navy blue and brown trench coats. And I had never seen anyone quite as attractive—not a male as attractive as Sam was. And so prior to the program my soul was kind of being stirred in another way."

Much like Franklin, Cooke was the son of a minister and started his career in gospel before transitioning to pop. "All singers aspired to be Sam," Franklin told Rolling Stone in 2014. "Sam was what you call a singer's singer … He didn't do a lot of running around on the stage, and because he knew he didn’t have to. He had a voice, and he didn't have to do anything but stand in one place and wipe you out."

Franklin covered a couple of Cooke's songs, including "A Change Is Gonna Come" in 1967 and "You Send Me" in 1968.

  1. Aretha Franklin's dad grounded her divaness.

Aretha Franklin circa 1968.
Aretha Franklin circa 1968.
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

When Franklin was 16, she visited New York City—her first time beyond Detroit's city limits since her family moved there from Memphis when she was 5—and took vocal lessons and a choreography class. "When I went home, I didn't think I was supposed to do housework anymore," she told Canadian TV in 1998. "This is too mundane for me. I'm not supposed to do that. I've been to New York. I'm a star now!"

She explained how she watched her sisters and cousin clean house, but didn't chip in. Her father walked into the room and asked her why she wasn't helping. "I said, 'I'm a star. I'm not supposed to do that. I've been to New York City.' He said, 'Well, listen, star, you better get in the kitchen and introduce yourself to all those dirty dishes.' I have not been a star since. I really needed that. He grounded me and he gave me balance, and from then on I'm not a star, I'm the lady next door."

As a teen, Franklin toured on the gospel circuit, and by 1960 she had a record deal with Columbia. By October of that year, her first label single, "Today I Sing the Blues," was released. It reached No. 10 on the R&B chart, but generally, Columbia didn't know how to market her. Franklin's albums and songs were middling chart hits, and though she was making good money touring, she wasn't a top act. When her contract expired in late 1966, she chose to move to Atlantic Records. There, her career skyrocketed.

  1. Her hit "Respect" was about respecting everyone.

When Franklin recorded Otis Redding's song "Respect" in 1967, she didn't have a specific feminist or civil rights agenda in mind. "My sister and I, we just liked that record [Respect]," Franklin told Vogue in 2016. "And the statement was something that was very important … It's important for people. Not just me or the Civil Rights movement or women—it's important to people. … As people, we deserve respect from one another.” That's also what the song's line "give me my propers" refers to—Franklin told The New York Times that the phrase was street slang for mutual respect.

The anthem was Franklin's first No. 1 hit, and it quickly became her signature song. Not only did the song empower others, but it was a lifelong mantra for Franklin. "I give it and I get it," she said of the importance of respect. "Anyone that I don't get it from does not deserve my time or attention."

  1. Franklin wrote the most famous line of "Respect"—and it wasn't sexual, as many have suggested.

Besides the "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" refrain, the repeated lyric "sock it to me" is the most famous line of the song. Redding didn't write that part, though—Franklin did. In 1999, Franklin told NPR that she and her younger sister decided to include the line while playing around on the piano one day. "It was a cliché of the day," Franklin said. "We didn't just come up with it, it really was cliché. And some of the girls were saying that to the fellows, like, 'Sock it to me in this way' or 'sock it to me in that way.' It was nonsexual, just a cliché line." The two backup singers who sang that refrain were Aretha's sisters, Erma and Carolyn.

  1. Aretha Franklin carried her purse everywhere, even onstage.

At the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, Franklin performed a show-stopping rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" for honoree Carole King (who co-wrote the song in 1967 specifically for Franklin, and then recorded a version of her own for her 1971 solo album, Tapestry). When she walked out on stage, Franklin was wearing a floor-length mink coat and carrying a sparkling clutch, which she laid on top of the piano before sitting down to play—a habit she had had for decades.

In a 2016 profile in The New Yorker, editor David Remnick wrote that Franklin made it a point early in her career to be paid upfront—in cash, sometimes of amounts up to $25,000—before performances, so keeping her handbag on her or within eyeshot was a security measure. "It's the era she grew up in," television host and author Tavis Smiley told Remnick. "She saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, get ripped off … and she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her."

"She's got her money, she's ready to move, to go wherever she needs to be," Rickey Minor, who was the musical director of the Kennedy Center Honors, told The New York Times. "How many times do you have to leave your purse in the dressing room and have it go missing before you say, 'I worked hard for this money—I'm going to put my purse right here where I can see it'?"

  1. Aretha Franklin believed in equal pay.

In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, she commented on gender disparity. "If women are going to do the same job, why not give equal pay? Because that job is harder for a woman than a man sometimes," she said. "We deserve parity, and maybe even a little more. Especially if it's physically taxing, we should get a little more money, if you have enough heart to take it on."

  1. Aretha Franklin used her money to fund social and civil rights activism.

In addition to being a socially conscious artist in public, Franklin she also worked behind the scenes to support the Civil Rights Movement. "When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll," Franklin's longtime friend, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, told the Detroit Free Press in 2018. "On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte … and they put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home and did a fundraiser for my campaign … She has shared her points of view from the stage for challenged people, to register to vote, to stand up for decency."

Another family friend, the Reverend Jim Holley, echoed Jackson. "Whenever there was a tragedy with families, any civil rights family, she was always giving," Holley said. "She used her talent and what God gave her to basically move the race forward. A lot of people do the talking but they don't do the walking. She used her talent and her resources. She was that kind of person, a giving person."

  1. Aretha Franklin offered to bail activist Angela Davis out of jail.

In 1970, communist activist and academic Angela Davis was arrested for allegedly purchasing guns used in a California courthouse shoot out. Franklin rushed to her defense and offered to pay Davis's bail. "Angela Davis must go free," Franklin told Jet. "Black people will be free. I've been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit] and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can't get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I'm going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she's a black woman and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people—they've made me financially able to have it—and I want to use it in ways that will help our people." Davis was eventually released (a local dairy farmer posted her $102,500 bail) and acquitted of all charges.

  1. In The Blues Brothers, Aretha Franklin had wanted to sing "Respect" instead of "Think."

Aretha Franklin appeared in two non-documentary films, and both times she played a singing diner waitress, Mrs. Murphy. Director John Landis wrote the part specifically for Franklin, which she played in 1980's The Blues Brothers. In it, the script called for Franklin, as a sassy diner owner, to sing her song "Think" to her guitarist husband as a way to dissuade him from joining Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's band.

Franklin had other ideas for her song number, though—she wanted to sing her biggest hit, "Respect," instead of "Think," a song she'd co-written and that had become her seventh Top 10 hit back in 1968. "We had written 'Think' into the script, with the dialogue leading into the song and the song actually furthering the plot of the film, so we didn't want to change it," Landis told The Hollywood Reporter. Franklin obliged but asked to change the piano part of the prerecorded track herself. "She sat down at the piano with the mic and, with her back to us, started playing and singing," Landis said. "Her piano playing actually made a difference. It was more soulful."

But, as usual, the Queen eventually got her way. In the 1998 sequel Blues Brothers 2000, she sang "Respect."

  1. Aretha Franklin didn't like to perform with air conditioning on.

In 1998, for the first annual VH1 Divas Live telecast—which also featured Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Carole King, and Shania Twain—Franklin refused to rehearse because the conditions were not right. "The reason she didn't rehearse was because she had requested that the air conditioning be turned off to protect her vocal cords," Divas director Michael Simon told The Hollywood Reporter. "I was in the control booth and there was near-hysteria. 'Why wasn't the air conditioning turned off?' Everybody kept asking but nobody had an answer. I'm guessing some house guy at the Beacon Theater whose job it was to turn on and off the air conditioning messed up. So there was no rehearsal for Aretha. And you could sort of tell during the program."

During her 2015 Kennedy Center Honors performance, Franklin famously wore a mink coat but dropped it mid-performance. "I wasn't sure about the air factor onstage, and air can mess with the voice from time to time," she told Vogue. "And I didn't want to have that problem that evening. It's been a long time since I've done Kennedy Center, and I wanted to have a peerless performance. Once I determined that the air was all right while I was singing, I said, 'Let's get out of this coat! I'm feeling it. Let's go!'"

  1. NASA named an asteroid after Aretha Franklin.

Franklin racked up innumerable accolades throughout her life, including 18 Grammy Awards (out of 44 nominations, and a streak of eight Best R&B Solo Vocal Performance awards from 1968-1975). In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She sang at Dr. Martin Luther King's memorial service, and she performed "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" at Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration. In 2005, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her civil rights work, and in April 2019 became the first woman to ever be awarded a Special Citation Pulitzer Prize. But perhaps the honor that best encapsulates her otherworldly talent came in 2014, when NASA named an asteroid after her.

  1. You can finally see her famed concert film, Amazing Grace.

In 1972, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in L.A.'s Watts neighborhood, Franklin recorded her double live album Amazing Grace, which would become her best-selling record and the best-selling gospel album of all time. Sydney Pollack (who was already an Oscar-nominated director at that point) directed the concert but failed to use clapperboards to sync images with audio; therefore the film couldn't be edited, and Pollack abandoned the project.

In an interview with Vulture, producer Alan Elliott said in 1990 he decided to purchase the footage and assemble it himself. To buy all of the footage, records, do the editing, and pay for insurance and lawyers, Elliott had to mortgage his home several times over the course of nearly 30 years. Franklin sued numerous times to prevent the movie from being screened, including in 2011 when Elliott showed it to friends and family and again just before its planned world premiere at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival.

"It isn't that I'm not happy about the film, because I love the film itself," Franklin told Detroit Free Press in 2015. "It's just that—well, legally I really should just not talk about it, because there are problems."

However, Franklin's Amazing Grace bassist Chuck Rainey told The New York Times that "she didn't like the film at all." According to the Times, "He thought her resistance derived from a feeling that the film wound up being more about style and celebrity than about the music or the worship—or even about Franklin."

Sabrina Owens, Franklin's niece and executor of the will, invited Elliott to Franklin's funeral. He returned a couple of weeks later and screened the film for Franklin's family. Finally, Owens and Elliott worked out a deal so the film could screen in public. In November 2018 the film premiered at DOC NYC, and in April 2019, Neon distributed it in NYC and L.A. theaters.

"It's the craziest story that I know of in show business," Elliott said.

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