Welcome to “Original Rock Legends!” To celebrate Geva’s final show this season, the hit musical Million Dollar Quartet directed by Hunter Foster, I’m taking you through a musical journey, uncovering the history behind the songs featured in Million Dollar Quartet.
This week, we’re exploring the legends behind Johnny Cash’s music:
“I Walk The Line”-1956
“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine,/I keep my eyes wide open all the time,/I keep the ends out for the tie that binds,/Because you’re mine, I’ll walk the line.”
Though his previous hits—“Cry, Cry, Cry,” “So Doggone Lonesome,” and “Folsom Prison Blues”—put Johnny Cash on the map, it was his fourth chart single, “I Walk the Line,” that came to define his image and career.
Cash wrote the song shortly after signing with Sam Phillips at Sun Records, who sent Cash on the road to open for a young Elvis Presley. Faced with temptation whilst surrounded by adoring female fans on tour, Cash wrote “I Walk the Line” as a proclamation of fidelity to his first wife, Vivian Liberto. Cash also implied in several interviews that the song was as much a reminder to himself not to give into the temptation to cheat on the road.
Though his touring with Presley as a newly-wed provided the occasion for writing the song, ideas that influenced “I Walk The Line” had been rattling around in Cash’s head since he was in the Air Force: While deployed in Germany, Cash was listening for German Morse code on headphones for eight hours a day, so when he went to write his early songs, the Morse code patterns were “running through [his] head” and found a way into his guitar lines. Then, in one particular incident, Cash accidentally played a tape recording of his Air Force band, the Landsberg Barbarians, backwards. This inspired what musicians and analysts have called the “backwards” musical structure in “I Walk The Line.” Nashville musician Rodney Crowell described the song for NPR: “It was just completely turned around and disassembled, and he’s modulating down. […] Normally with a modulation, you would just start in a lower key and modulate up a half-step or a full step. But he started out by modulating down and then modulating back up.”
According to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “’I Walk The Line’ proved Sun could survive the loss of Elvis Presley.” The song hit #1 on Billboard’s charts, and remained high-ranked on the charts for a mind-boggling 43 weeks. The single sold over 2 million copies.
Here’s a young Johnny Cash singing “I Walk The Line” c. 1956: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEV58ztuihs
And, here we have Johnny Cash performing “I Walk The Line” at San Quentin in 1969: https://www.rockhall.com/songs-shaped-rock-and-roll-i-walk-line This recording demonstrates 1) the faster tempo Sam Phillips encouraged for this song, and 2) Cash’s famous humming during the song, which has been said to both help Cash find his way through all the key changes, and to emulate a physician in his hometown who was always humming.
Thanks for tuning in to “Original Rock Legends!” We’ll be back on Friday with more stories behind the legendary musicians who defined rock ‘n’ roll. This program is sponsored by Geva Theatre Center, where the Million Dollar Quartet comes back to life, LIVE onstage, now through June 25th. Until next time, rock on my friends!