by Sean Smith
This week has a number of notable anniversaries for the late country legend Johnny Cash. It was 46 years ago this past Sunday that the “Man in Black” played at the White House for President Richard Nixon. It was also 53 years ago this past Tuesday that Johnny Cash released perhaps his most well known single “Ring of Fire”.
When Johnny Cash visited President Nixon in the White House on April 17, 1970, Nixon asked Cash to perform a few songs in particular for him. The President wanted to hear Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”, and Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac”. The latter two being songs which voice a conservative view. Cash did perform his song “A Boy Named Sue” but he did not perform the other two songs. Many people over the years have attributed him not playing those conservative leaning songs as some political stand he was making. However, that isn’t completely accurate. Cash himself said that it was simply that the request to play those songs came in too late for him to properly prepare the arrangements. Although he did add that “if [the request] hadn’t [come too late], then the issue might have become the messages, but fortunately I didn’t have to deal with that.” Johnny Cash did perform a few other of his songs at the White House that did have a more left leaning message such as the anti-war “What is Truth?”
Seven years prior to his White House visit in 1970, Johnny Cash had released what was arguably the biggest hit of his career with “Ring of Fire”. The single was released on April 19, 1963 off of his 16th album Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash. Upon it’s release it quickly moved up the charts reaching #1 on the country charts and staying there for seven straight weeks. It also had some mainstream success on the charts making it as high as the 17 position on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Ring of Fire” was written by Johnny Cash’s eventual wife June Carter along with songwriter Merle Kilgore. Well, at least that is what the official credits read. Johnny Cash’s wife at the time of the song’s recording and release, Vivian Carter, claimed in her book I Walked the Line that June had no part in writing the song, and that Johnny wrote it himself and only gave her credit to help her out. According to June Carter Cash, she came up with the concept of the song after driving around one night thinking about the wild life that Johnny Cash was living, and at the same time how she couldn’t help but to be around him.
Believe it or not Johnny Cash was not the first person to record and release “Ring of Fire”. The song was originally recorded by June Carter’s sister Anita Carter and released in 1962 under the title “(Love’s) Ring of Fire”. Johnny Cash claimed that he had a dream after hearing Anita Carter’s version of the song that had him singing the song accompanied by a mariachi sounding horn section. Cash gave Anita about half a year for her original recording of the song a chance to become a hit before ultimately recording and releasing his own take on the song. While Anita’s version of the song failed to become a big hit, “Ring of Fire” became the largest commercial hit of Johnny Cash’s career.
So with this week being the anniversary of not only the release of Johnny Cash’s signature song, but also being the anniversary of his famous 1970 performance at the White House; this week we remember the 1963 Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire”. Enjoy.
“Ring Of Fire”
From Ring Of Fire: The Best Of Johnny Cash
“(Love’s) Ring Of Fire”
From Anita Carter Sings Folk Songs Old And New