If there’s one song that can be said to encapsulate Johnny Cash, then it is undoubtedly his 1956 hit single, ‘I Walk The Line’. Born into an impoverished farming community in Arkansas, Cash couldn’t help but imagine a better life for himself. Looking for an escape, he enlisted in the US Air Force and was promptly shipped off to San Antonio, Texas, and then to West Germany. It was during his time on the edge of the Iron Curtain that he first heard the famous melody for ‘I Walk The Line’.
Writing his autobiography, Cash recalls lending a tape recorder to his friends, which was returned to him with the tape put on backwards. He put it up on his reel to reel recorder and heard a haunting song “full of weird chord changes, something that sounded like spooky church music”. What he was listening to was, in fact, a warped recording of his first band The Landsberg Barbarians, named after the airbase where they were stationed and where Cash met his first wife, Vivian Liberto.
When Cash met Liberto at a roller rink in Texas, his life was far from glamorous. His job in the airbase required him to stay up well into the early hours intercepting morse code messages from the Germans and The Soviets. Indeed, Cash was possibly the first American to learn of Joseph Stalin’s death in March 1953. According to friend Rodney Crowell, Cash soaked up the sound of the messages coming in from Germany, so much so that the pulse of morse code found its way into Cash’s stuttering guitar lines.
As Crowell told NPR: “I had a conversation with Johnny the other day, And we were talking about when he was in the military–he was in the Air Force. And his job in the Air Force, he sat with headphones on trying to pick up, I think, German Morse code. And, you know, when Morse code’s running through the headphones, and he’s, you know, pulling his eight-hour shift. I said, ‘Man, that’s sounds to me like that’s where your(makes guitar noises) sound came from.’ And he said, ‘It absolutely is.’ He said, ‘When I first started writing songs, I was kind of keeping a little notebook and scratching things around with Morse code running through my head’.”
During this time, Cash was utterly devoted to Liberto, sending her streams of love notes from his lonely station. But by the time Cash signed to Sun Records, his loyalty was beginning to wane. In 1955, Cash released two modestly-recieved singles and began touring with fellow Sun signee Elvis Presley. The King’s shows tended to attract hordes of screaming female fans, many of whom would have done anything to get close to Cash. He wrote the lyrics to ‘I Walk The Line’ as a reminder to stay on the straight and narrow. “It was kind of a prodding to myself to play it straight, Johnny,'” Cash later said of the song.
Cash decided to include an array of autobiographical elements in ‘I Walk The Line’. Take the humming at the start of each verse, apparently, Cash picked that up from a man called Dr. Hollingsworth, a physician in his hometown who had a habit of humming during examinations. The line “I keep my eyes open all the time”, meanwhile, is based on a piece of advice from a Dale Carnegie business course.
Initially, Cash wrote ‘I Walk The Line’ as a downtempo number, but Sam Phillips, the producer who had helped Elvis cultivate his sound, believed it would work better at a higher speed. “Well, Sam wanted it up–you know, up-tempo. And I put paper in the strings of my guitar to get that–(makes guitar noises)–sound. And with a bass and a lead guitar, there it was. Bare and stark that song was when it was released. And I heard it on the radio, and I really didn’t like it. And I called Sam Phillips and I asked him please not to send out any more records of that song. But he said, `Let’s give it a chance.’ And it was just a few days until–that’s all it took to take off.”
Rather ironically, the success of ‘I Walk The Line’ made it much harder for Cash to resist the temptation of women and amphetamines. As a touring musician, Cash needed to have enough energy to give a top-notch show night after night. Looking for something that would keep him awake, he asked the doctor to prescribe him some pills. As he once recalled: “So I was taking the pills for a while, and then the pills started taking me”. Cash’s various addictions would become an essential part of his image over the subsequent decades, adding to the public’s view of him as a world-worn and strangely romantic proto-rocker. It is this same contrast between glamour and depravity that characterises ‘I Walk The Line’. Perhaps that’s why it continues to typify Cash’s life and career to this day.