Johnny Cash was a notorious figure who always did things his own way. While his maverick attitude to life is often an endearing one, it would also land the country singer into a spot of bother and, with it, he became no stranger to getting arrested occasionally. However, his most bizarre arrest came in 1965 after he was caught red-handed picking flowers.
The singer had spent the evening drinking in true Johnny Cash fashion, a wild night which led to him becoming heavily intoxicated and, after deciding to take a walk through a farmers field following a gig at Mississipi State University, he would end up in the hands of the authorities.
Cash, whole wasted, was supposedly arrested for trespassing and, in his defence, he claimed to be taking a shortcut to try and find a store that was still open to buy some cigarettes. Either way, whatever his motives, it didn’t matter as he would spend the night tossed inside a jail cell.
The icon would go on to discuss the incident years later in which he maintained his innocence, claiming he was actually arrested whilst walking from his motel to a grocery store after a party on the campus: “You wouldn’t believe it, one night I got in jail in Starkville, Mississippi, for picking flowers. I was walking down the street… and uh, you know, going to get me some cigarettes or something. ‘Bout two in the morning, after a show. I think it was,” he said.
He continued: “Anyway, I reached down and picked a dandelion here and a daisy there as I went along, and this car pulls up. He said, ‘Get it the hell in here, boy, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m just picking flowers.’ Well, $36 for picking flowers and a night in jail. You can’t hardly win, can ya? No telling what they’d do if you pull an apple or something… I’d like to get back at the fella down in Starkville, Mississippi… that still has my $36.”
This fateful night would be the muse for Cash to write ‘Starkville City Jail’, a song in which he would recount the evening’s events and put his beautiful storytelling skills to good use: “Well, I left my motel room, down at the Starkville Motel, The town had gone to sleep and I was feelin’ fairly well,” he sings. “I strolled along the sidewalk ‘neath the sweet magnolia trees/ I was whistlin’, pickin’ flowers, swayin’ in the southern breeze, I found myself surrounded; one policeman said: “That’s him. Come along, wildflower child. Don’t you know that it’s two a.m.”
Some years following his death, Johnny Cash would eventually be pardoned in 2007 as part of the town’s ‘Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival’ which ran for a weekend in the November of that year. Citizens of the town held a ceremonial pardon for Cash on the campus of Mississippi State University.
It was organised by Robbie Ward, who began working on the idea two years ago, the MSU research writer collected 500 signatures on a petition and founded a 25-person committee in order to make it happen. “A lot of people would laugh at me and act like I was kind of crazy,” Ward said.
This arrest was definitely the strangest out of the seven occasions that Cash would find himself on the wrong side of the law but it did lead to the creation of ‘Starksville City Jail’ and opened the singer’s eyes even further on the faculties of the American justice system, listen to the track below.