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Episode
227

The Wild Life of Johnny Cash

Jan 11, 2022
Arts & Culture
-
18
minutes
1950s
Music
Drugs
Alcohol
Prison
1960s

Nicknamed "The Man in Black", Johnny Cash lived a wild life and escaped death on numerous occasions.

In this episode, we'll learn about his early trauma, his iconic image and style, how he managed to play 200 shows a year and the trail of destruction he left behind him.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of our three-part mini-series on troubled but iconic American musicians of the 1950s and 60s.

[00:00:32] In part one we talked about the amazing and unlikely life of Ray Charles, and learned how he went on to achieve great influence and success, despite all the odds.

[00:00:44] In part three, we’ll talk about Elvis Presley, the King of Rock & Roll, and how he went from relative obscurity to being an object of desire for tens of millions of teenage Americans.

[00:00:57] And in today’s episode, part two, we’ll talk about The Man in Black, Johnny Cash.

[00:01:04] He went from picking cotton during the Great Depression to being one of the most successful country musicians in history, with his deep and instantly recognisable voice and traditional “all in black” outfit.

[00:01:18] But his story is, again, tragic and unlikely, and on our journey we’ll meet the FBI, hard drugs, childhood tragedy, love, divorce, forest fires and prison.

[00:01:32] We have a lot to get through, so let’s not waste a minute.

[00:01:37] Johnny Cash was born on February 26th of 1932, a year and a half after Ray Charles and three years before Elvis.

[00:01:47] He was actually not born “Johnny Cash” - he was born J.R. Cash. His mother wanted to call him John, his father wanted to call him Ray, so they settled on calling him “J.R”.

[00:02:02] Like Ray Charles, J.R Cash grew up in the deep south of America during the Great Depression. 

[00:02:10] As a young boy he would work in the cotton fields with his parents, and they would sing songs while they worked. Life was not easy for the young J.R, and his family was constantly struggling to put enough food on the table.

[00:02:27] And like Ray Charles, who was growing up at the same time three states to the east, the young J.R experienced deep tragedy at a young age.

[00:02:39] When he was 12 years old, he saw his older brother, Jack, have a terrible accident.

[00:02:46] Jack would cut wood for his family using a table saw. One day, as he was cutting wood he was pulled into this saw, and it almost cut him in half. The poor boy survived for a week afterwards, but then died of his wounds.

[00:03:05] And the young Johnny Cash, J.R, was right there when it happened.

[00:03:11] As one would expect, this experience left a profound mark on the young Johnny. Before he had been a happy-go-lucky kind of kid, always fooling around and making jokes.

[00:03:26] Afterwards the jokes and laughs stopped, and he preferred to spend time on his own reading or drawing.

[00:03:34] He turned further to music, and started writing his own music when he was 12. He had been brought up in a Christian environment. He went to church, and it was gospel music that was what he was most familiar with.

[00:03:50] As was required of men of his age, Cash joined the armed forces in 1950, shortly after his 18th birthday. 

[00:03:59] A little bit of trivia about this time, a funny story about this time, was that he actually travelled to West Germany and was an incredibly talented interpreter of Morse Code, and reportedly was the first person to interpret a coded message that the Soviets sent on March 5th, 1953, which announced the death of Josef Stalin.

[00:04:25] But Johnny Cash had bigger dreams than working as a military interpreter.

[00:04:31] After four years working in the army he was allowed to leave, and he returned to civilian life. 

[00:04:37] Success and fame weren’t to come immediately though. 

[00:04:42] First, he worked as a door-to-door salesman to make ends meet, but hated it - he felt like he was tricking people into buying things they don’t need, and said “I used to worry about people puttin' themselves into debt. I'd say, 'You don't want any of this, do you?' They'd say, 'Hold on there, what are you selling?'”

[00:05:05] By this time he had got married. He had met a 17-year-old Italian-American girl called Vivian Liberto at a roller disco in 1951, they dated for three weeks before Cash was sent to Germany for three years, and one month after he returned the pair were married.

[00:05:24] Cash tried to get his big musical break, but didn’t have much luck. He sang gospel music, but gospel was on the out; it wasn’t what the public wanted to hear. One producer even reportedly told him "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell".

[00:05:47] Well, sinning wasn’t to prove to be a problem for Johnny Cash. 

[00:05:52] He adjusted his tone, and swapped a more traditional gospel style for a deep, rocking style of country music, often about dark subjects, including murder, drugs, and all sorts of crime.

[00:06:07] The song that really catapulted him to fame was Folsom Prison Blues, which he wrote in 1953 and released in 1955. 

[00:06:18] It got to Number 1 in the Country Music charts, number 5 in the nationwide charts. 

[00:06:24] Famously, he even performed it and recorded a version of this live at the prison, in front of the inmates in 1958. 

[00:06:35] Cash was fast becoming a national star, and followed up this hit with Walk The Line a year later, and Big River the year after that, in 1959.

[00:06:48] By this time he was on a semi-permanent national tour, playing up to 200 concerts every year.

[00:06:58] He had cultivated a particular image as well. 

[00:07:02] Firstly, he always wore black. Black shoes, black trousers, a black jacket, and normally a black shirt.

[00:07:11] There are several theories about why he did this, and he even wrote a song called “Man in Black” in which he suggests the reasons he always wore black. 

[00:07:21] One is in solidarity with the poor, oppressed and disadvantaged. 

[00:07:26] Another theory has it that black was just a lot easier to clean than any other colour, and when you are travelling around the country playing two hundred shows a year, well, having black clothes probably does make a lot of sense. 

[00:07:42] Or there’s another theory that he wore it out of solidarity for the American soldiers who had died in the Korean war.

[00:07:51] Or it might well have been because of black’s association with sin and bad behaviour, and sin was something that Johnny Cash was becoming increasingly familiar with.

[00:08:04] By the time he was on tour, he was deeply addicted to prescription drugs - both amphetamines to speed things up and barbiturates to slow things down. 

[00:08:15] He would take up to 100 pills a day, all washed down with crate-loads of beer.

[00:08:22] To say that Johnny Cash was out of control is probably an understatement

[00:08:28] There are stories of him from this time of his band members finding him passed out on the floor with no pulse, with his heart stopped. And instead of taking him to hospital they simply picked him up, threw cold water over him and hit him about the head until he woke up, until he came to, and dragged him to the next concert.

[00:08:52] Indeed, it was a badly-kept secret that Johnny Cash was a complete liability, he was a trainwreck of a man.

[00:09:02] He was an incredibly popular artist at this time though, and tickets to his concerts would always sell out. But promoters wouldn’t know whether he would be sober enough to actually perform.

[00:09:15] Much like Ray Charles, who remember was a heroin addict for much of his career, Johnny Cash managed to remain very productive from a songwriting point of view, and wrote some of his most successful music while completely strung out on, while completely addicted to hard drugs.

[00:09:36] While he might have been able to continue to draw the crowds and write music, it turns out that maintaining a hard drug addiction and leading a normal life isn’t a great combination. 

[00:09:49] Cash’s behaviour was taking a toll on his marriage. He was away from his wife and young family for the majority of the year, and when he returned home he would bring his drugs and drink with him.

[00:10:03] That was only one half of the problem though.

[00:10:06] While on tour, Cash had come across another band called The Carter Family, an American folk band. 

[00:10:15] Of particular interest to Johnny Cash was one member of the band, June Carter.

[00:10:23] Cash became infatuated with June Carter, he was completely in love with her, and they started a passionate love affair, despite both of them being married with children.

[00:10:36] Cash made no secret of the affair. The pair toured together, they released singles together, they were inseparable

[00:10:45] It might have been cute to see their romance blossom, but it certainly wasn’t cute for Johnny Cash’s wife. She filed for divorce in 1966, after 12 traumatic years of dealing with a drug-addled husband who was off on tour for most of the year and having a public affair with another woman.

[00:11:07] He had numerous close shaves with the authorities as well, all of them due to his reckless drinking and drug taking.

[00:11:16] In June of 1965 he took his nephew on a camping trip in a national park in California, and ended up causing a forest fire that burned down two square kilometres of forest and drove away 53 endangered birds.

[00:11:35] When he was brought into court in front of a judge, he said that his camper van had malfunctioned and caused sparks to set fire to the grass. But the judge didn’t believe him, and thought it was much more likely that Cash had taken a load of pills and drunk a load of beer, started a fire to try to stay warm, then the fire had blown out of control. 

[00:12:01] And Cash, in his drunk and drugged-up state, hadn’t been able to stop it.

[00:12:07] It didn’t help Cash’s case that he turned up to court completely off his face, completely comatose on drugs, and told the judge “I don't care about your damn yellow buzzards.” 

[00:12:19] Buzzards are a type of bird, by the way.

[00:12:23] The judge made him pay $82,000, which would be around three-quarters of a million dollars in today’s money.

[00:12:32] This wasn’t the first or the last time he would get in trouble with the law. 

[00:12:38] Probably his most famous encounter with the law was to come later that year.

[00:12:44] He was in Dallas, Texas, and was scheduled to fly out to Los Angeles. 

[00:12:50] Instead he jumped on a plane to El Paso, Texas, knowing that it was just a 45-minute drive over the border to Mexico, where the kind of drugs Cash was after were readily available.

[00:13:05] After arriving in El Paso he jumped into a taxi, and gave the driver a mission. Pills, and lots of them.

[00:13:14] Before long the driver had returned with over a thousand pills, a mixture of amphetamines and tranquilizers. 

[00:13:23] Cash proceeded to stash them in his guitar case, and instructed the driver to head back north across the border.

[00:13:31] But he was a drug addict well-known to the police.

[00:13:36] Before he could do anything he was stopped by a narcotics squad, who thought he was trying to smuggle heroin across the border.

[00:13:45] When they searched him they didn’t find heroin, but they did find 688 Dexedrine pills and another 475 Equanils hidden in his guitar case. 

[00:13:58] He was arrested, but was never sent to prison as the drugs he had were prescription pills instead of illegal narcotics.

[00:14:08] If you thought this close-shave with the law would be enough to persuade him to mend his ways, you would be mistaken. 

[00:14:17] He went straight back to the drink and drugs, and it wasn’t until two years later, after a near-fatal car accident in 1967, that he first managed to get clean, that he first managed to get off the drugs.

[00:14:32] Another motivation for getting clean was June Carter, who he proposed to on stage in February 1968, and they were married a week later.

[00:14:44] Although his heyday, and the period which he produced his most famous work came from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, Johnny Cash continued to write and perform for the next four decades, writing over a thousand different songs.

[00:15:03] The last song he released is one you may be familiar with - it’s a cover of the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt”. Cash performed his own version in 2002, just months before the love of his life, June Carter was to die, and while Cash himself was dying.

[00:15:24] Cash completely reinterpreted the song - the original version is about a young man spiralling out of control, but Cash’s version is about an old man reflecting on his life. When you know that Cash was that man himself, the song becomes particularly poignant.

[00:15:45] Johnny Cash finally died after complications from diabetes on September 12th, 2003, at the age of 71. The years of hard-living had taken their toll on him. Parts of his stomach had had to be removed, and he was in a very bad way.

[00:16:05] Really, given all of the times that he was close to death, it is a miracle that he managed to live as long as he did.

[00:16:13] In terms of the legacy that he left behind, there are few people who have done so much to bring country music to the masses as Johnny Cash. 

[00:16:23] He certainly had his fair share of demons, and his personal life was chaotic, often illegal, and at many times very dark indeed.

[00:16:34] But he was a champion of the underdog, a champion of anyone cast out and neglected by society.

[00:16:41] He was a man who was certainly deserving of the nickname “The Man in Black”.

[00:16:49] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Wild Life Of Johnny Cash.

[00:16:55] Whether you are a die-hard Johnny Cash fan or you didn’t know that much about the man before this, well I hope it's been an interesting one.

[00:17:04] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:17:08] For the Johnny Cash fans out there, what are your favourite of his songs? 

[00:17:12] If you ask me, it has to be Folsom Prison Blues or Big River. 

[00:17:16] But tell me, what are yours?

[00:17:19] The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:17:25] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:17:30] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of our three-part mini-series on troubled but iconic American musicians of the 1950s and 60s.

[00:00:32] In part one we talked about the amazing and unlikely life of Ray Charles, and learned how he went on to achieve great influence and success, despite all the odds.

[00:00:44] In part three, we’ll talk about Elvis Presley, the King of Rock & Roll, and how he went from relative obscurity to being an object of desire for tens of millions of teenage Americans.

[00:00:57] And in today’s episode, part two, we’ll talk about The Man in Black, Johnny Cash.

[00:01:04] He went from picking cotton during the Great Depression to being one of the most successful country musicians in history, with his deep and instantly recognisable voice and traditional “all in black” outfit.

[00:01:18] But his story is, again, tragic and unlikely, and on our journey we’ll meet the FBI, hard drugs, childhood tragedy, love, divorce, forest fires and prison.

[00:01:32] We have a lot to get through, so let’s not waste a minute.

[00:01:37] Johnny Cash was born on February 26th of 1932, a year and a half after Ray Charles and three years before Elvis.

[00:01:47] He was actually not born “Johnny Cash” - he was born J.R. Cash. His mother wanted to call him John, his father wanted to call him Ray, so they settled on calling him “J.R”.

[00:02:02] Like Ray Charles, J.R Cash grew up in the deep south of America during the Great Depression. 

[00:02:10] As a young boy he would work in the cotton fields with his parents, and they would sing songs while they worked. Life was not easy for the young J.R, and his family was constantly struggling to put enough food on the table.

[00:02:27] And like Ray Charles, who was growing up at the same time three states to the east, the young J.R experienced deep tragedy at a young age.

[00:02:39] When he was 12 years old, he saw his older brother, Jack, have a terrible accident.

[00:02:46] Jack would cut wood for his family using a table saw. One day, as he was cutting wood he was pulled into this saw, and it almost cut him in half. The poor boy survived for a week afterwards, but then died of his wounds.

[00:03:05] And the young Johnny Cash, J.R, was right there when it happened.

[00:03:11] As one would expect, this experience left a profound mark on the young Johnny. Before he had been a happy-go-lucky kind of kid, always fooling around and making jokes.

[00:03:26] Afterwards the jokes and laughs stopped, and he preferred to spend time on his own reading or drawing.

[00:03:34] He turned further to music, and started writing his own music when he was 12. He had been brought up in a Christian environment. He went to church, and it was gospel music that was what he was most familiar with.

[00:03:50] As was required of men of his age, Cash joined the armed forces in 1950, shortly after his 18th birthday. 

[00:03:59] A little bit of trivia about this time, a funny story about this time, was that he actually travelled to West Germany and was an incredibly talented interpreter of Morse Code, and reportedly was the first person to interpret a coded message that the Soviets sent on March 5th, 1953, which announced the death of Josef Stalin.

[00:04:25] But Johnny Cash had bigger dreams than working as a military interpreter.

[00:04:31] After four years working in the army he was allowed to leave, and he returned to civilian life. 

[00:04:37] Success and fame weren’t to come immediately though. 

[00:04:42] First, he worked as a door-to-door salesman to make ends meet, but hated it - he felt like he was tricking people into buying things they don’t need, and said “I used to worry about people puttin' themselves into debt. I'd say, 'You don't want any of this, do you?' They'd say, 'Hold on there, what are you selling?'”

[00:05:05] By this time he had got married. He had met a 17-year-old Italian-American girl called Vivian Liberto at a roller disco in 1951, they dated for three weeks before Cash was sent to Germany for three years, and one month after he returned the pair were married.

[00:05:24] Cash tried to get his big musical break, but didn’t have much luck. He sang gospel music, but gospel was on the out; it wasn’t what the public wanted to hear. One producer even reportedly told him "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell".

[00:05:47] Well, sinning wasn’t to prove to be a problem for Johnny Cash. 

[00:05:52] He adjusted his tone, and swapped a more traditional gospel style for a deep, rocking style of country music, often about dark subjects, including murder, drugs, and all sorts of crime.

[00:06:07] The song that really catapulted him to fame was Folsom Prison Blues, which he wrote in 1953 and released in 1955. 

[00:06:18] It got to Number 1 in the Country Music charts, number 5 in the nationwide charts. 

[00:06:24] Famously, he even performed it and recorded a version of this live at the prison, in front of the inmates in 1958. 

[00:06:35] Cash was fast becoming a national star, and followed up this hit with Walk The Line a year later, and Big River the year after that, in 1959.

[00:06:48] By this time he was on a semi-permanent national tour, playing up to 200 concerts every year.

[00:06:58] He had cultivated a particular image as well. 

[00:07:02] Firstly, he always wore black. Black shoes, black trousers, a black jacket, and normally a black shirt.

[00:07:11] There are several theories about why he did this, and he even wrote a song called “Man in Black” in which he suggests the reasons he always wore black. 

[00:07:21] One is in solidarity with the poor, oppressed and disadvantaged. 

[00:07:26] Another theory has it that black was just a lot easier to clean than any other colour, and when you are travelling around the country playing two hundred shows a year, well, having black clothes probably does make a lot of sense. 

[00:07:42] Or there’s another theory that he wore it out of solidarity for the American soldiers who had died in the Korean war.

[00:07:51] Or it might well have been because of black’s association with sin and bad behaviour, and sin was something that Johnny Cash was becoming increasingly familiar with.

[00:08:04] By the time he was on tour, he was deeply addicted to prescription drugs - both amphetamines to speed things up and barbiturates to slow things down. 

[00:08:15] He would take up to 100 pills a day, all washed down with crate-loads of beer.

[00:08:22] To say that Johnny Cash was out of control is probably an understatement

[00:08:28] There are stories of him from this time of his band members finding him passed out on the floor with no pulse, with his heart stopped. And instead of taking him to hospital they simply picked him up, threw cold water over him and hit him about the head until he woke up, until he came to, and dragged him to the next concert.

[00:08:52] Indeed, it was a badly-kept secret that Johnny Cash was a complete liability, he was a trainwreck of a man.

[00:09:02] He was an incredibly popular artist at this time though, and tickets to his concerts would always sell out. But promoters wouldn’t know whether he would be sober enough to actually perform.

[00:09:15] Much like Ray Charles, who remember was a heroin addict for much of his career, Johnny Cash managed to remain very productive from a songwriting point of view, and wrote some of his most successful music while completely strung out on, while completely addicted to hard drugs.

[00:09:36] While he might have been able to continue to draw the crowds and write music, it turns out that maintaining a hard drug addiction and leading a normal life isn’t a great combination. 

[00:09:49] Cash’s behaviour was taking a toll on his marriage. He was away from his wife and young family for the majority of the year, and when he returned home he would bring his drugs and drink with him.

[00:10:03] That was only one half of the problem though.

[00:10:06] While on tour, Cash had come across another band called The Carter Family, an American folk band. 

[00:10:15] Of particular interest to Johnny Cash was one member of the band, June Carter.

[00:10:23] Cash became infatuated with June Carter, he was completely in love with her, and they started a passionate love affair, despite both of them being married with children.

[00:10:36] Cash made no secret of the affair. The pair toured together, they released singles together, they were inseparable

[00:10:45] It might have been cute to see their romance blossom, but it certainly wasn’t cute for Johnny Cash’s wife. She filed for divorce in 1966, after 12 traumatic years of dealing with a drug-addled husband who was off on tour for most of the year and having a public affair with another woman.

[00:11:07] He had numerous close shaves with the authorities as well, all of them due to his reckless drinking and drug taking.

[00:11:16] In June of 1965 he took his nephew on a camping trip in a national park in California, and ended up causing a forest fire that burned down two square kilometres of forest and drove away 53 endangered birds.

[00:11:35] When he was brought into court in front of a judge, he said that his camper van had malfunctioned and caused sparks to set fire to the grass. But the judge didn’t believe him, and thought it was much more likely that Cash had taken a load of pills and drunk a load of beer, started a fire to try to stay warm, then the fire had blown out of control. 

[00:12:01] And Cash, in his drunk and drugged-up state, hadn’t been able to stop it.

[00:12:07] It didn’t help Cash’s case that he turned up to court completely off his face, completely comatose on drugs, and told the judge “I don't care about your damn yellow buzzards.” 

[00:12:19] Buzzards are a type of bird, by the way.

[00:12:23] The judge made him pay $82,000, which would be around three-quarters of a million dollars in today’s money.

[00:12:32] This wasn’t the first or the last time he would get in trouble with the law. 

[00:12:38] Probably his most famous encounter with the law was to come later that year.

[00:12:44] He was in Dallas, Texas, and was scheduled to fly out to Los Angeles. 

[00:12:50] Instead he jumped on a plane to El Paso, Texas, knowing that it was just a 45-minute drive over the border to Mexico, where the kind of drugs Cash was after were readily available.

[00:13:05] After arriving in El Paso he jumped into a taxi, and gave the driver a mission. Pills, and lots of them.

[00:13:14] Before long the driver had returned with over a thousand pills, a mixture of amphetamines and tranquilizers. 

[00:13:23] Cash proceeded to stash them in his guitar case, and instructed the driver to head back north across the border.

[00:13:31] But he was a drug addict well-known to the police.

[00:13:36] Before he could do anything he was stopped by a narcotics squad, who thought he was trying to smuggle heroin across the border.

[00:13:45] When they searched him they didn’t find heroin, but they did find 688 Dexedrine pills and another 475 Equanils hidden in his guitar case. 

[00:13:58] He was arrested, but was never sent to prison as the drugs he had were prescription pills instead of illegal narcotics.

[00:14:08] If you thought this close-shave with the law would be enough to persuade him to mend his ways, you would be mistaken. 

[00:14:17] He went straight back to the drink and drugs, and it wasn’t until two years later, after a near-fatal car accident in 1967, that he first managed to get clean, that he first managed to get off the drugs.

[00:14:32] Another motivation for getting clean was June Carter, who he proposed to on stage in February 1968, and they were married a week later.

[00:14:44] Although his heyday, and the period which he produced his most famous work came from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, Johnny Cash continued to write and perform for the next four decades, writing over a thousand different songs.

[00:15:03] The last song he released is one you may be familiar with - it’s a cover of the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt”. Cash performed his own version in 2002, just months before the love of his life, June Carter was to die, and while Cash himself was dying.

[00:15:24] Cash completely reinterpreted the song - the original version is about a young man spiralling out of control, but Cash’s version is about an old man reflecting on his life. When you know that Cash was that man himself, the song becomes particularly poignant.

[00:15:45] Johnny Cash finally died after complications from diabetes on September 12th, 2003, at the age of 71. The years of hard-living had taken their toll on him. Parts of his stomach had had to be removed, and he was in a very bad way.

[00:16:05] Really, given all of the times that he was close to death, it is a miracle that he managed to live as long as he did.

[00:16:13] In terms of the legacy that he left behind, there are few people who have done so much to bring country music to the masses as Johnny Cash. 

[00:16:23] He certainly had his fair share of demons, and his personal life was chaotic, often illegal, and at many times very dark indeed.

[00:16:34] But he was a champion of the underdog, a champion of anyone cast out and neglected by society.

[00:16:41] He was a man who was certainly deserving of the nickname “The Man in Black”.

[00:16:49] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Wild Life Of Johnny Cash.

[00:16:55] Whether you are a die-hard Johnny Cash fan or you didn’t know that much about the man before this, well I hope it's been an interesting one.

[00:17:04] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:17:08] For the Johnny Cash fans out there, what are your favourite of his songs? 

[00:17:12] If you ask me, it has to be Folsom Prison Blues or Big River. 

[00:17:16] But tell me, what are yours?

[00:17:19] The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:17:25] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:17:30] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of our three-part mini-series on troubled but iconic American musicians of the 1950s and 60s.

[00:00:32] In part one we talked about the amazing and unlikely life of Ray Charles, and learned how he went on to achieve great influence and success, despite all the odds.

[00:00:44] In part three, we’ll talk about Elvis Presley, the King of Rock & Roll, and how he went from relative obscurity to being an object of desire for tens of millions of teenage Americans.

[00:00:57] And in today’s episode, part two, we’ll talk about The Man in Black, Johnny Cash.

[00:01:04] He went from picking cotton during the Great Depression to being one of the most successful country musicians in history, with his deep and instantly recognisable voice and traditional “all in black” outfit.

[00:01:18] But his story is, again, tragic and unlikely, and on our journey we’ll meet the FBI, hard drugs, childhood tragedy, love, divorce, forest fires and prison.

[00:01:32] We have a lot to get through, so let’s not waste a minute.

[00:01:37] Johnny Cash was born on February 26th of 1932, a year and a half after Ray Charles and three years before Elvis.

[00:01:47] He was actually not born “Johnny Cash” - he was born J.R. Cash. His mother wanted to call him John, his father wanted to call him Ray, so they settled on calling him “J.R”.

[00:02:02] Like Ray Charles, J.R Cash grew up in the deep south of America during the Great Depression. 

[00:02:10] As a young boy he would work in the cotton fields with his parents, and they would sing songs while they worked. Life was not easy for the young J.R, and his family was constantly struggling to put enough food on the table.

[00:02:27] And like Ray Charles, who was growing up at the same time three states to the east, the young J.R experienced deep tragedy at a young age.

[00:02:39] When he was 12 years old, he saw his older brother, Jack, have a terrible accident.

[00:02:46] Jack would cut wood for his family using a table saw. One day, as he was cutting wood he was pulled into this saw, and it almost cut him in half. The poor boy survived for a week afterwards, but then died of his wounds.

[00:03:05] And the young Johnny Cash, J.R, was right there when it happened.

[00:03:11] As one would expect, this experience left a profound mark on the young Johnny. Before he had been a happy-go-lucky kind of kid, always fooling around and making jokes.

[00:03:26] Afterwards the jokes and laughs stopped, and he preferred to spend time on his own reading or drawing.

[00:03:34] He turned further to music, and started writing his own music when he was 12. He had been brought up in a Christian environment. He went to church, and it was gospel music that was what he was most familiar with.

[00:03:50] As was required of men of his age, Cash joined the armed forces in 1950, shortly after his 18th birthday. 

[00:03:59] A little bit of trivia about this time, a funny story about this time, was that he actually travelled to West Germany and was an incredibly talented interpreter of Morse Code, and reportedly was the first person to interpret a coded message that the Soviets sent on March 5th, 1953, which announced the death of Josef Stalin.

[00:04:25] But Johnny Cash had bigger dreams than working as a military interpreter.

[00:04:31] After four years working in the army he was allowed to leave, and he returned to civilian life. 

[00:04:37] Success and fame weren’t to come immediately though. 

[00:04:42] First, he worked as a door-to-door salesman to make ends meet, but hated it - he felt like he was tricking people into buying things they don’t need, and said “I used to worry about people puttin' themselves into debt. I'd say, 'You don't want any of this, do you?' They'd say, 'Hold on there, what are you selling?'”

[00:05:05] By this time he had got married. He had met a 17-year-old Italian-American girl called Vivian Liberto at a roller disco in 1951, they dated for three weeks before Cash was sent to Germany for three years, and one month after he returned the pair were married.

[00:05:24] Cash tried to get his big musical break, but didn’t have much luck. He sang gospel music, but gospel was on the out; it wasn’t what the public wanted to hear. One producer even reportedly told him "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell".

[00:05:47] Well, sinning wasn’t to prove to be a problem for Johnny Cash. 

[00:05:52] He adjusted his tone, and swapped a more traditional gospel style for a deep, rocking style of country music, often about dark subjects, including murder, drugs, and all sorts of crime.

[00:06:07] The song that really catapulted him to fame was Folsom Prison Blues, which he wrote in 1953 and released in 1955. 

[00:06:18] It got to Number 1 in the Country Music charts, number 5 in the nationwide charts. 

[00:06:24] Famously, he even performed it and recorded a version of this live at the prison, in front of the inmates in 1958. 

[00:06:35] Cash was fast becoming a national star, and followed up this hit with Walk The Line a year later, and Big River the year after that, in 1959.

[00:06:48] By this time he was on a semi-permanent national tour, playing up to 200 concerts every year.

[00:06:58] He had cultivated a particular image as well. 

[00:07:02] Firstly, he always wore black. Black shoes, black trousers, a black jacket, and normally a black shirt.

[00:07:11] There are several theories about why he did this, and he even wrote a song called “Man in Black” in which he suggests the reasons he always wore black. 

[00:07:21] One is in solidarity with the poor, oppressed and disadvantaged. 

[00:07:26] Another theory has it that black was just a lot easier to clean than any other colour, and when you are travelling around the country playing two hundred shows a year, well, having black clothes probably does make a lot of sense. 

[00:07:42] Or there’s another theory that he wore it out of solidarity for the American soldiers who had died in the Korean war.

[00:07:51] Or it might well have been because of black’s association with sin and bad behaviour, and sin was something that Johnny Cash was becoming increasingly familiar with.

[00:08:04] By the time he was on tour, he was deeply addicted to prescription drugs - both amphetamines to speed things up and barbiturates to slow things down. 

[00:08:15] He would take up to 100 pills a day, all washed down with crate-loads of beer.

[00:08:22] To say that Johnny Cash was out of control is probably an understatement

[00:08:28] There are stories of him from this time of his band members finding him passed out on the floor with no pulse, with his heart stopped. And instead of taking him to hospital they simply picked him up, threw cold water over him and hit him about the head until he woke up, until he came to, and dragged him to the next concert.

[00:08:52] Indeed, it was a badly-kept secret that Johnny Cash was a complete liability, he was a trainwreck of a man.

[00:09:02] He was an incredibly popular artist at this time though, and tickets to his concerts would always sell out. But promoters wouldn’t know whether he would be sober enough to actually perform.

[00:09:15] Much like Ray Charles, who remember was a heroin addict for much of his career, Johnny Cash managed to remain very productive from a songwriting point of view, and wrote some of his most successful music while completely strung out on, while completely addicted to hard drugs.

[00:09:36] While he might have been able to continue to draw the crowds and write music, it turns out that maintaining a hard drug addiction and leading a normal life isn’t a great combination. 

[00:09:49] Cash’s behaviour was taking a toll on his marriage. He was away from his wife and young family for the majority of the year, and when he returned home he would bring his drugs and drink with him.

[00:10:03] That was only one half of the problem though.

[00:10:06] While on tour, Cash had come across another band called The Carter Family, an American folk band. 

[00:10:15] Of particular interest to Johnny Cash was one member of the band, June Carter.

[00:10:23] Cash became infatuated with June Carter, he was completely in love with her, and they started a passionate love affair, despite both of them being married with children.

[00:10:36] Cash made no secret of the affair. The pair toured together, they released singles together, they were inseparable

[00:10:45] It might have been cute to see their romance blossom, but it certainly wasn’t cute for Johnny Cash’s wife. She filed for divorce in 1966, after 12 traumatic years of dealing with a drug-addled husband who was off on tour for most of the year and having a public affair with another woman.

[00:11:07] He had numerous close shaves with the authorities as well, all of them due to his reckless drinking and drug taking.

[00:11:16] In June of 1965 he took his nephew on a camping trip in a national park in California, and ended up causing a forest fire that burned down two square kilometres of forest and drove away 53 endangered birds.

[00:11:35] When he was brought into court in front of a judge, he said that his camper van had malfunctioned and caused sparks to set fire to the grass. But the judge didn’t believe him, and thought it was much more likely that Cash had taken a load of pills and drunk a load of beer, started a fire to try to stay warm, then the fire had blown out of control. 

[00:12:01] And Cash, in his drunk and drugged-up state, hadn’t been able to stop it.

[00:12:07] It didn’t help Cash’s case that he turned up to court completely off his face, completely comatose on drugs, and told the judge “I don't care about your damn yellow buzzards.” 

[00:12:19] Buzzards are a type of bird, by the way.

[00:12:23] The judge made him pay $82,000, which would be around three-quarters of a million dollars in today’s money.

[00:12:32] This wasn’t the first or the last time he would get in trouble with the law. 

[00:12:38] Probably his most famous encounter with the law was to come later that year.

[00:12:44] He was in Dallas, Texas, and was scheduled to fly out to Los Angeles. 

[00:12:50] Instead he jumped on a plane to El Paso, Texas, knowing that it was just a 45-minute drive over the border to Mexico, where the kind of drugs Cash was after were readily available.

[00:13:05] After arriving in El Paso he jumped into a taxi, and gave the driver a mission. Pills, and lots of them.

[00:13:14] Before long the driver had returned with over a thousand pills, a mixture of amphetamines and tranquilizers. 

[00:13:23] Cash proceeded to stash them in his guitar case, and instructed the driver to head back north across the border.

[00:13:31] But he was a drug addict well-known to the police.

[00:13:36] Before he could do anything he was stopped by a narcotics squad, who thought he was trying to smuggle heroin across the border.

[00:13:45] When they searched him they didn’t find heroin, but they did find 688 Dexedrine pills and another 475 Equanils hidden in his guitar case. 

[00:13:58] He was arrested, but was never sent to prison as the drugs he had were prescription pills instead of illegal narcotics.

[00:14:08] If you thought this close-shave with the law would be enough to persuade him to mend his ways, you would be mistaken. 

[00:14:17] He went straight back to the drink and drugs, and it wasn’t until two years later, after a near-fatal car accident in 1967, that he first managed to get clean, that he first managed to get off the drugs.

[00:14:32] Another motivation for getting clean was June Carter, who he proposed to on stage in February 1968, and they were married a week later.

[00:14:44] Although his heyday, and the period which he produced his most famous work came from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, Johnny Cash continued to write and perform for the next four decades, writing over a thousand different songs.

[00:15:03] The last song he released is one you may be familiar with - it’s a cover of the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt”. Cash performed his own version in 2002, just months before the love of his life, June Carter was to die, and while Cash himself was dying.

[00:15:24] Cash completely reinterpreted the song - the original version is about a young man spiralling out of control, but Cash’s version is about an old man reflecting on his life. When you know that Cash was that man himself, the song becomes particularly poignant.

[00:15:45] Johnny Cash finally died after complications from diabetes on September 12th, 2003, at the age of 71. The years of hard-living had taken their toll on him. Parts of his stomach had had to be removed, and he was in a very bad way.

[00:16:05] Really, given all of the times that he was close to death, it is a miracle that he managed to live as long as he did.

[00:16:13] In terms of the legacy that he left behind, there are few people who have done so much to bring country music to the masses as Johnny Cash. 

[00:16:23] He certainly had his fair share of demons, and his personal life was chaotic, often illegal, and at many times very dark indeed.

[00:16:34] But he was a champion of the underdog, a champion of anyone cast out and neglected by society.

[00:16:41] He was a man who was certainly deserving of the nickname “The Man in Black”.

[00:16:49] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Wild Life Of Johnny Cash.

[00:16:55] Whether you are a die-hard Johnny Cash fan or you didn’t know that much about the man before this, well I hope it's been an interesting one.

[00:17:04] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:17:08] For the Johnny Cash fans out there, what are your favourite of his songs? 

[00:17:12] If you ask me, it has to be Folsom Prison Blues or Big River. 

[00:17:16] But tell me, what are yours?

[00:17:19] The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:17:25] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:17:30] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]