Johnny Cash’s “Five Feet & Counting” Was Inspired By The Devastating 1937 Ohio River Flood

Johnny Cash
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The year was 1935.

America was in the midst of The Great Depression, the worst economic crash in our country’s history. Millions were out of work and farmers were fleeing the Great Plains thanks to The Dust Bowl, a drought that made most farmland unsuitable for cultivation, not to mention sent untold amounts of dirt into the lungs of every person who stayed. Cities became overrun by displaced families, the financial system was in ruins, trustworthy banking was nothing more than a fever dream, and a generation scarred from the horrors of The Great War were once again fighting for their lives.

It was a clear low point for the nation, with complete collapse just around any number of corners.

But some hope was also stirring in the people, as newly elected president Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid a message of revival through his platform of sweeping federal reform, anchored in national unity, financial stability through government backed bank guarantees, and a massive number of projects to rebuild American infrastructure and agriculture, giving these struggling workers a job, albeit temporary, to get back on their feet.

One of those programs was the Agriculture Relief and Rehabilitation Program, whose goal was to create self-sustaining farm based communities in the unsettled areas of the Mississippi Delta. The largest of those communities was Dyess, Arkansas, located in the northeastern part of the state. Thousands of people applied for this new settlement and were screened by the following criteria: Experienced farmer, destitute through no fault of his own, of good moral background, under the age of 50, and white.

Well, there was a family in Kingsland, Arkansas that met all of those criteria and were selected to take a chance with this new opportunity. Carrie Cloveree and Ray Cash picked up and moved their 5 children, one being a John R. Cash, to Dyess. The family was given 40 acres of land (only 1 acre precleared), a two bedroom house, some farm equipment, and a few buildings like a shed and smoke house.

This is where the Man In Black, Johnny Cash, grew up.

While their situation improved almost immediately upon moving there, disaster struck less than 2 years later as they were really settling into their new life.

In February 1937, one of the worst floods in US history hit the Midwest.

The 1937 Ohio River Flood caused a tremendous amount of damage to multiple states, tragically killing 385 people, leaving over 1 million homeless, and racked up $500 million ($10.2 billion in 2022 dollars) in property damage.

In response, the US Army Corps of Engineers sent an entire fleet for rescue and relief work, and FDR directed thousands of Works Progress Administration employees, along with millions of dollars, to assist the decimated area.

The states most affected were Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and West Virginia, however damage stretched far and wide as the rushing waters caused floods well down America’s heartland, including the town of Dyess, Arkansas.

Floods wiped out most of the community’s farmland, forcing residents to flee for their lives. Many never returned.

Although Johnny Cash was just under 5 years old while this took place, it left a mark on him that he would never forget, later using the experience as inspiration for his song “Five Feet And Rising,” which was released as a single in July of 1959, 22 years later.

It’s a pretty direct recollection of his family’s flee to safety, and when you realize it was based on actual events, it adds a much deep meaning to the already emotional song.

“We can make it to the road in a homemade boat
That’s the only thing we got left that’ll float
It’s already over all the wheat and the oats
Two feet high and risin’

Well, the hives are gone
I’ve lost my bees
The chickens are sleepin’
In the willow trees
Cow’s in water up past her knees
Three feet high and risin’

Well, the rails are washed out north of town
We gotta head for higher ground
We can’t come back till the water goes down
Five feet high and risin’”

Even though this was very mild compared to the areas that were truly washed away, it still shows just how scarring of an experience this was for everyone involved, especially if you’re kid still trying to figure the world out.

The Cash’s neighbors were some of the people who never returned and the family was able to purchase the land and expand their own operations. Johnny lived in Dyess through high school, after which he joined the Air Force. His military service lead to another incredible story, which you can read about here.

The perseverance and grit it took to live that life and put it back together when devastation hits absolutely helped shape Johnny into the man he became.

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock