If you haven’t seen the Netflix documentary Remastered: Tricky Dick and the Man in Black, I am begging you to go watch it.
It chronicles a story that happened 53 years ago today on April 17th, 1970.
Richard Nixon was in the midst of a roller coaster ride of a presidency.
On the upside, the US had landed a person on the moon, marking a major milestone in world history. Nixon had also begun removing US troops from parts of Vietnam, established the US Postal Service, normalized relations with China, and announced ending de jure segregation as a goal of his administration.
The 1970 economy was relatively stable for the time being, although many economists correctly saw hardships on the horizon.
The downside of Nixon’s administration is well known. Obviously, his resignation in 1974 following the Watergate Scandal is what most think of, but there was plenty in the lead up. The Vietnam War raged on and protests at home split spart families, friends, communities, and seemingly the entire country. “Stagflation” spread rapidly, due to near zero economic growth and quickly rising prices. The Pentagon Papers leaked and the culture continued to divided along numerous, convoluted lines.
The sense of impending chaos was felt strongly by Nixon and his cabinet, so they decided to try and gain some favor by inviting one of the greatest country music artists of all-time to perform live at the White House.
Johnny Cash wasn’t the first musician who got Nixon’s invite. Throughout his time in office, Merle Haggard, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, and others made the DC trip to perform, but none of those quite had the societal implications of Johnny’s visit.
Nixon had recently announced his desire for the Vietnam War to end, a position that Johnny openly agreed with on The Johnny Cash Show. Upon hearing the news that Cash had publicly supported his position, Nixon extended an invitation to The Man in Black to come play a set in Washington.
But of course, Richard Nixon wasn’t one to let an opportunity pass him by.
He asked Johnny to play certain songs he believed would gain favor from his base and seemingly align Johnny, right or wrong, with all of the president’s stances.
There were three specific songs requested: “A Boy Named Sue,” Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” and Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac.”
“Okie From Muskogee,” perhaps sarcastically, was viewed as an anti-weed, anti-hippie song, while “Welfare Cadillac” was viewed as poking fun of those who needed welfare, were poor, or were minorities.
But Johnny saw right through this.
He denied the president’s request, citing lack of time to learn the songs, but most believe the real reason was the misalignment of messages and Johnny’s beliefs. While he would support the ending of the war, he wasn’t about to take on the rest of Nixon’s positions (an example I think we could all learn from today).
Nonetheless, Johnny Cash and June Carter showed up at the White House determined to put on a good show and make a statement of their own.
Johnny played “A Boy Named Sue” along with a few gospel songs, but began making his own statement by playing “The Man In Black,” which explains for who he wears his iconic black suit. Safe to say, it’s doubtful Nixon agreed.
“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten downBut is there because he’s a victim of the times…”Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime
However, the real mic drop moment happened when he played “What Is Truth?,” a pro-youth, anti-war song that Johnny wrote and released as a single just a few months earlier.
“A young man of seventeen in Sunday schoolBeing taught the golden rule And by the time another year has gone around It may be his turn to lay his life down Can you blame the voice of youth for asking “What is truth?”
When his performance ended, Johnny made the following address directly to the president.
“We pray, Mr. President, that you can end this war in Vietnam sooner than you hope or think it can be done, and we hope and pray that our boys will be back home and there will soon be peace in our mountains and valleys.”
That is why Johnny Cash is Johnny Cash.
Not afraid to look straight into the eyes of a man many hated, agree with what he believed was right and disagree respectfully, and with purpose, on what he believed was wrong.
Here’s to the great Johnny Cash.