“I got a few of my own I can play for you”: When Johnny Cash met President Nixon and didn’t sit back
When rock stars meet Presidents or Prime Ministers it can often be a dull and press-heavy affair. Take Kanye’s flirtations with the cheeto-faced 45th or even Noel Gallagher’s “cool Britannia” backing of Tony Blair, both are examples of pathetic pandering to a higher power. Johnny Cash, is not the pandering type, as Richard Nixon would attest to.
When Nixon invited Johnny Cash to the White House for a chat about prison reform and an impromptu concert, he was likely expecting a light-hearted and simple exchange. Fair to say that Nixon should’ve done his homework. Cash is not a person to avoid speaking his mind. Whether you were drinking in the gutter or wearing a glitzy crown, Johnny Cash spoke to you with the same candour, humour, and delicacy as any other person he met.
In the summer of ’72, Cash found himself in front of the President in the White House’s Blue Room with an agenda in hand. The country singer was there for a discussion on prison reform while Nixon, with a plethora of press and photographers at his beck and call, was clearly there for the PR opportunity. Nixon broke the ice with “Johnny, would you be willing to play a few songs for us?”
Maybe things could’ve gone differently had Nixon stopped here. But alas, he continued, “I like Merle Haggard’s ‘Okie From Muskogee’ and Guy Drake’s ‘Welfare Cadillac.'” For the country music lamen, like us, these songs are widely regarded as right-wing songs. The former is an attack on Vietnam protests while the latter is about poor people trying to cheat the welfare system.
Cash responded, deadpan, responds “I don’t know those songs. But I got a few of my own I can play for you.” Cash without blinking an eye launches in to ‘What Is Truth?’ a song based on the power of youth and freedom. The track went a little further to embarrass the President as the second verse is aggressively anti-war.
Did Cash then back off and play some “good ol’ fashioned tunes”? No. No, he did not. Instead, he performed ‘Man In Black’ a song which is a clear expression of Cash’s desire to stand with the weak, the poor, the lonely, and most importantly, the soldiers. The famous line “Each week we lose a hundred fine young men” leaving an indelible mark on proceedings.
Cash wasn’t done yet. He decided to cap off his performance with another pointed song, ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’, a song based on the plight of the Native American people and in particular, again, soldiers. Hayes in the song returns home to be decorated with medals and bedraggled by survivor’s guilt. He eventually drinks himself to death in the face of this darkness.
And so concluded one of the longest gigs President Nixon would ever sit through, we’d assume. Cash clearly arrived with an idea to make a point, something Nixon was not expecting. The President, as a big fan of Cash, had expected an easy PR spot, but that was not to be. Cash had earlier spent the day testifying in front of a Senate committee on prisons. He confessed of his own time in jail, saying “A first offender needs to know that somebody cares for him and that he is given a fair shake,” Cash said. “The purpose behind prison reform should be to have less crime. The prisoner has to be treated like a human being. If he isn’t when he gets out, he won’t act like one.”
This moment clearly left him the political mood, and frankly, it is hard not to respect him for it. While so many rock stars these days cower in front of politicians, allowing them to command the room, Cash stood up for what he believed in and took a stand. With so many people desperate to keep their favourite idols out of the political spectrum this story serves as a reminder that the greatest always make their voice heard. Truly, is there anything more rock and roll than that?