Few musicians have had a greater impact on American Culture than Johnny Cash.
He was outspoken on social divides, protested the Vietnam War directly to Richard Nixon, was a major activist against Native American injustices, harped on the need for prison reform, and never minced his words when making a point.
His music and nature inspired millions, leading The Man in Black to become much more than just a country music star… he was a real example of the American Dream. Flaws, talent, and principle combined to form something greater than the sum of its parts, something every person can find relatable yet aspirational.
Johnny’s views stemmed from vast life experience.
He was born during the Great Depression, raised on an Arkansas farm, survived the 1937 Ohio River Flood, lost a brother in his early teens, and served 4 years in the Air Force, all by the time he was 22 years old.
Those experiences, plus the wild life of music on the road, fueled the powerful statements in his music that America desperately longed for.
But music wasn’t the first time his message reached the masses.
Johnny served in the US Air Force from 1950 to 1954. He was assigned to the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile of the USAF Secret Service in Landsberg, Germany, where he worked as a morse code operator intercepting Soviet Union transmissions.
As he described in his 1997 autobiography, he was given this job when the Air Force recognized his talent for finding patterns in seemingly jumbled communications.
“I had such a talent for that particular line of work and such a good left ear, I was the ace. I was who they called when the hardest jobs came up.”
This skill was put to the test when he was stationed on the front lines of the Cold War in 1951. Having received top secret clearance, Cash was sequestered into an extremally lonely life, working long hours and late nights alone, deciphering encrypted messages from Soviet leaders.
He had just met his first wife, Vivian Liberto, before deploying to Germany and was suffering madly being apart from her. Not allowed to speak to her about the work he was doing, he was relegated to sending only love letters. In fact, he wasn’t allowed to talk with anyone about his work, further increasing the strain he was feeling as a lovestruck, homesick 20-something.
Despite the difficulties of the situation, he served the position honorably and even found himself part of one of world history’s biggest moments.
On March 5th, 1953, Johnny intercepted a message which stated that Joseph Stalin, the feared dictator of the Soviet Union, was in poor health. The messages continued to flow in all night, culminating with news that Stalin had passed away, leaving a leadership vacuum at the top of a dangerous world power.
Johnny gave the messages to his superiors, who fed the news directly to President Eisenhower, who immediately began preparing the nation for the next, more uncertain, phase of the Cold War.
Right place, right time? There’s certainly a little bit of that.
But undoubtedly, Johnny Cash was a crucial piece of a crucial moment of the Cold War.
He recalled this and another important discovery in his autobiography.
“I copied the first news of Stalin’s death. I located the signal when the first Soviet jet bomber made its first flight from Moscow to Smolensk… we all knew what to listen for, but I was the one who heard it.
I couldn’t believe that Russian operator. He was sending at thirty-five words a minute by hand, a rate so fast I thought it was a machine transmitting until I heard him screw up. He was truly exceptional, but most of his comrades were fast enough to make the best Americans sound like amateurs, sloppy and slow. It didn’t matter, though.”
Was Johnny really the first American to hear of Stalin’s death? It sounds like a bit of a tall tale, but Johnny was definitely involved in some capacity.
Even his daughter Rosanne acknowledges how far-fetched it sounds, but recalls Johnny telling the story a number of times throughout her entire life.
Many have drawn the conclusion that Johnny’s strong beliefs on the need for prison reform, as well as his iconic song “Folsom Prison Blues,” began to be formed during his stint overseas, viewing the restrictions put on him as a type of imprisonment.
But I think another key piece of his nature was formed here.
Johnny Cash was taking in an immense flow of confusing information, finding the important parts, straightening it out, and sending it off to those who needed it.
Isn’t that exactly what he did with his music?
He absorbed every bit of this world, took in all the experiences, highs and lows and rights and wrongs, and drew a lesson, or meaning, or unseen point of view that ties those experiences together. He then packaged it all up in an easy to understand song, sung beautifully and proudly all over the country.
The news of Stalin’s death may have been one of the first times Johnny Cash found hidden importance in seemingly tangled nonsense, but it certainly wasn’t the last.
America is better today because of the example Johnny Cash has put forth and the actual work he did.
All of us would be well-served by trying to be a bit more like The Man in Black.