This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #223: I Walk the Line by Johnny Cash.
One of the very best ways to understand and appreciate the power that comes from the musical structure of this song is to watch the opening scene in the movie of Cash’s life that was released just over a decade ago called, “Walk the Line”. This movie starred Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as his wife, June Carter Cash. In this opening scene, Johnny Cash is about to give his famous concert from inside the walls of Folsom Prison. As the scene begins, all we hear in the “boom-chicka-boom” of the rhythm section of his band as they play the opening notes of “I Walk the Line”, over and over again, as they await the appearance of Cash on stage. While they play, the prisoners stomp their feet in time with the beats of the music. The combination creates a steady, pounding, thunderous beat, just like the pounding power of a steam locomotive engine as it chugs along. This “train-inspired” bit of structural underpinning came to be a signature of many of Johnny Cash’s songs.
“I Walk the Line” was the first single Johnny Cash ever released. He did so in 1956, which makes this song over 65 years old as you read these words. As we have discussed in a previous post about Cash (For the song, “The Man in Black”, which you can read here), Cash began his career as a gospel singer. He attempted to impress the folks at Sun Records (where Elvis was “discovered”) by auditioning with covers of Gospel classics only to be famously told, “to get some life experiences and come back when he had more interesting things to sing about”. As part of gaining this “life experiences”, Cash toured with Elvis and, as well, with Carl Perkins (who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes”). Newly married to a lady named Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash found himself on the road, surrounded by more sexual temptation than he had ever dreamed of (due in large part to the throngs of girls who came out to see Elvis). Feeling tremendous pressure to remain faithful to “Miss Vivian”, Cash sat down one day and wrote an ode to fidelity that became known as “I Walk the Line”. There is real emotion contained within the lyrics to this song.
“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 ties that bind.
Because you’re mine,
I walk the line.”
It was these sort of “life experiences” that Colonel Tom Parker had insisted Cash get before his songs would be worthy of being recorded and released. Now that he was understanding more about how life as a singer would be, that wisdom came out in his lyrics. Consequently, Parker saw fit to let Cash record “I Walk the Line”, which became his first hit and one of his most famous songs of all-time.
The funny thing about this song is that, as we all know, Johnny Cash stayed faithful to his first wife for only so long. Once he encountered June Carter, of the famous singing Carter Family, he immediately saw how much better suited she was for him than was his non-musical first wife, Vivian. Cash’s growing relationship with June Carter served as the reason for “Miss Vivian” to seek an annulment of their marriage. After being granted a divorce, Johnny Cash married June Carter. Their marriage lasted until his death a few years ago. In a way, Cash lived up to his pledge written in “I Walk the Line”….it was just that it took marriage #2 for that to happen.
So, as you listen to the opening notes of “I Walk the Line”, take note of the power of the steam train-inspired rhythm section. As well, note how his life experiences informed the creation of the words he sings. Once you find your true love, these lyrics are definitely words to live by.
So, without further delay, here is the man in black, himself, Mr. Johnny Cash with his first hit, “I Walk the Line”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash, can be found here.
The link to the video for the opening scene in the movie, “I Walk the Line”, can be found here.
The official website for Johnny cash, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.