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Music

How Queen Elizabeth inspired a Johnny Cash classic

@TomTaylorFO

Any story that usually starts with ‘I had a really weird dream last night’ often invokes an immediate response of boredom in the listener as the reality dawns ‘of course, it was weird, it was a recallable dream; what do you want? Banal dreams about doing the washing up as though your wild unconscious psyche is being directed by a drab Ken Loach-Sandman incarnate?’ Normally, the only sentence that can perk up the ‘weird dream’ utterance is the fateful line ‘…about you!’ However, when it comes to a song that has since gone down in history, the dream that spawned it is well worth some curious attention.

One evening, perhaps after a bit too much cheese, Johnny Cash went to bed and soon found himself shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth. Therein the famed royal said unto him: “You are like a thorn bush caught in a whirlwind,” proving, even in slumber, the Man in Black remains a cool customer with an eye for prose. Years later, he was casually leafing through the Book of Revelations, when a similar phrase leapt from the page, and, naturally, he was stirred into songwriting mode, eventually crafting the epic ‘The Man Comes Around’.

If the track seems less like an enthused splurge and more like a layered and cognizant opus, that’s because it is. Although most of the time we see dreams as fleeting fizzes that dissipate with the morning coffee, Cash kept a hold of his for years after stashing the line away in a songwriting notebook that he clutched like a crucifix.

In fact, even that notion is worth pausing over as it makes an important point for any would-be songwriter. As the late great and notoriously lazy comedian, Mitch Hedberg once joked: “I write jokes for a living, man. See, I sit in my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny and then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.” It’s a line that makes you wonder how much brilliance we have missed out on by people not having a notepad handy. 

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Thankfully, the line always stuck with Cash and when a second dream delivered the mariachi horns to ‘Ring of Fire’ into the mix of ‘The Man Comes Around’, his sonic world was sutured with perfect circularity. With so much of the song deriving from dreams, Cash took a biblical approach with the track. The lyrics reference the “four horsemen” and the Parable of the Ten Virgins among others as Cash alludes to “The Man” passing final judgement. 

The bible verse in question that tied the imagined monarch’s remark together reads as follows: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.”

Regardless of where it came from, the song remains a classic. Furthermore, coming from his 2002 album of the same name, it shows how brilliantly Cash managed to mature his songs over the years. He is undoubtedly one of the very few artists who managed to get better with age, or at the very least, sustain his timeless class.