Few friendships can boast two of music’s brightest talents, but the love shared between Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan is about as pure as one can get. The duo spent many years during their respective careers giving flowers to the other through interviews, performances and covering one another’s songs. Of course, the twosome also shared some famous sessions, riffing on one another’s work and delving deep in their triumphantly big book of American standards. However, there was one song from the freewheelin’ troubadour, Dylan, that Cash leaned very heavily on.
There was a great deal of mutual respect between the two icons, with Cash recalling in Cash: The Autobiography: “I had a portable record player that I’d take along on the road, and I’d put on [The] Freewheelin’ [Bob Dylan] backstage, then go out and do my show, then listen again as soon as I came off. After a while at that, I wrote Bob a letter telling him how much of a fan I was. He wrote back almost immediately, saying he’d been following my music since ‘I Walk the Line,’ and so we began a correspondence.”
“In plain terms, Cash was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him—the greatest of the greats then and now,” Dylan wrote upon Cash’s passing in 2003. “Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English. I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty.”
In recent news, a live cover of Johnny Cash performing Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right’ was unearthed and released on streaming services for the very first time. The song is set to be released as part of Johnny Cash’s forthcoming live album titled Bear’s Sonic Journals: Johnny Cash at The Carousel Ballroom April, 24th, 1968. It’s a title that’s almost as long as the album itself which charts a whopping 28 songs and is captured by Grateful Dead chemist Owsley Stanley but that’s not the most interesting thing about the release.
‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ is a Dylan song that has found a home in most people’s personal favourites list. A track rich in humanity and dripping with sincerity, it is the kind of universal truth that became an archetypal facet of Dylan’s songwriting. In fact, it’s the kind of song that led Cash to once call him one of the greatest songwriters he had ever known. So much so, it would seem, that he was grateful to borrow the odd sonic structure from his friend as his daughter, Cindy Cash, has confirmed.
While Cash’s cover of ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ was a beautiful reminder of how effortlessly the singer could make a song his own, Cindy Cash was able to shed light on a long-held belief in the corners of Cash’s fandom, that he stole the melody of the song for his own number ‘Understand Your Man’. Released as the first single of Cash’s album I Walk The Line, this 1964 song’s lyrics were penned entirely by Cash but he did lean on his old pal for the melody.
The song became an instant hit because of its catchy tune and riveting lyrics. A duet version of Cash and Dylan was recorded on February 17th, 1969, during the Nashville session, which took the form of a medley with the addition of Dylan’s song ‘Don’t Think Twice.’ However, it was never released. ‘Understand Your Man’ was also the last song to be performed by Cash in front of the audience at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia, on 5 July 2003.
Cindy Cash recalls asking her father about the close links between the songs: “For all of you have been observant enough to notice that the melodies are similar on this song and ‘Understand your Man’, good for you. I am Johnny’s daughter from his first wife, Vivian, and know the story first hand from dad,” Cindy Cash wrote in a comment on a bootleg of the recording featuring on YouTube — just how Dylan and her dad would have liked it.
“He wrote ‘Understand You Man’ while not in a real good mood,” she continued, “as you can tell, and was having a hard time coming up with a melody which, for him, was a frustrating thing. He could come up with them so fast. So he called Dylan and said, ‘Hey, Do you mind if I use the melody of yours from ‘Don’t ThinkTiwce’ for a song I’m writing? I just can’t seem to come up with one?’ Dylan said, ‘I don’t give a shit’… this story was told to me word for word by my dad one day when I was singing ‘Don’t Think Twice…’ in the kitchen and asked him why I always went into the words to ‘Understand Your Man’ every time I sang it. He told me this story himself!! I didn’t doubt him for a second. Sounds just like both of them. I laughed all day. So yes, it’s not just similar; it’s exactly the same!”
Below, you can listen to Johnny Cash sing both ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright‘ and ‘Understand Your Man’ as a fitting reminder of his love for Bob and Dylan’s love for Johnny.