For more than four decades singer and songwriter Johnny Cash, who died Friday at age 71, was a voice for working people and the downtrodden. His music and storytelling continued the saga of America's common people where Depression troubadors Jimmy Rodgers and Woody Guthrie left off.
Mr. Cash grew up in Arkansas during the Depression watching his father "ride the rails" of freight trains as he traveled the countryside seeking work. The music of those troubadors and the effects of the Depression on his family were the seminal inspiration for Mr. Cash's later music. That and the encouragement of his mother, who called his music "the gift."
Mr. Cash's career began in 1955 with his first single, Hey, Porter/Cry, Cry, Cry. The latter spent one week on the Billboard charts at No. 14. That was soon followed by Folsom Prison Blues and I Walk the Line, now both country classics. I Walk the Line stayed on the Billboard charts for 43 weeks, peaking at No. 2.
Mr. Cash signed on at Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., at about the same time Elvis Presley got his start with the recording company in 1955. In fact, Mr. Cash in the early days often was the opening act at Presley concerts.
Always the rebel, Mr. Cash became known as The Man in Black when he joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1957.
"Everybody was wearing rhinestones, all those sparkle clothes and cowboy boots," he once explained. "I decided to wear a black shirt and pants and see if I could get by with it. I did and I've worn black clothes ever since."
Later, when he wrote his 1971 hit Man in Black, Mr. Cash said the black clothing symbolized the downtrodden people in the world.
Despite his musical success and close friendship with many of the big names of show business, Mr. Cash never felt accepted by the country music establishment. In his autobiography Cash - written with Patrick Carr - Mr. Cash wrote, "I wonder how many of those people ever filled a cotton sack. I wonder if they know that before I became 'not country' in the '90s, their predecessors were calling me 'not country' in the '50s and the '60s, and the '70s. ..."
Despite such rejection, Mr. Cash continued to sing about the common people and their problems, many of which he had also survived. Only death could silence the voice of one of the music industry's first outlaws. His music and storytelling, however, survives and continues to influence succeeding generations.