Johnny Cash sings his protest anthem ‘Man in Black’ for the first time, 1971
At a time when mass protests feel as much a part of life as ever before, we thought we’d reflect and take a step back in time to revisit Johnny Cash’s original protest anthem, the glorious ‘Man in Black’.
The song, originally released on his 1971 album of the same name, was a bundle of pent up anger and frustration released the only way Johnny Cash knew how—with venom. The lyrics are a damning protest statement against the Vietnam war, the treatment of poor people by wealthy politicians, the mass incarceration of thousands of people and so much more.
Often used as his moniker, ‘The Man In Black’ had some democratically pure beginnings. In the creation of the song Cash had revealed that a conversation with some of the audience members from Vanderbilt University had inspired the writing of the track. Cash, often politically minded in his musings on record, obliged with one of his best numbers.
It was at the Ryman Auditorium of that same university, Cash sang the song live for the very first time as part of a segment called ‘Johnny Cash on Campus’, just one day after he had laid the track down in the studio. When asked about his wardrobe, Cash replied: “This sounds like just a record plug and it’s not… People were always asking me why I wore black.”
Adding: “I’ve worn black basically ever since I’ve been in the music business. But I never did really answer the reporters when they asked that question.” It seemed he’d rather let his music do the talking.
“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, living in the hopeless, hungry side of town,” Cash sings on the song’s searing lyrics. “I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime but is there because he’s a victim of the times,” he continues, highlighting the scourge of mass incarceration.
When asked about his wardrobe choice as part of an interview with the popular Mike Douglas Show in the year the record was released, Cash responded: “This sounds like just a record plug and it’s not… People were always asking me why I wore black. I’ve worn black basically ever since I’ve been in the music business. But I never did really answer the reporters when they asked that question.”
Here it is, the first live performance of the song: