ReMastered season 1, episode 2 recap: Tricky Dick & The Man in Black


Episode 2 of ReMastered explores the complex political climate surrounding music legend Johnny Cash and his meeting with President Richard Nixon.

America has always been at a cultural crossroad, but some periods in time make it more obvious than others. Enter the Vietnam War era, when the country was divided over whether the war was justified, and those against the war were often deemed, troublemakers and deviants. It’s interesting to wonder how country icon Johnny Cash fit into all of this, and ReMastered does an adequate job of providing context for a fascinating moment in American society and its music.

Johnny Cash was known to be patriotic. He once said, “I appreciate your freedom to burn your flag if you want to, but I really appreciate my right to bear arms so I can shoot you if you try to burn mine.”  Pat Buchanan, Nixon’s senior adviser, says Nixon wanted to identify with middle America, so it made sense for him to develop an interest in Cash. However, Mark Stiepler, a Cash family historian, paints a complex picture of Johnny Cash. He was at times a rebel, a family man and a gospel singer. In other words, he was a man who stood for many things.

Family history of Johnny Cash

Johnny was born in Arkansas on February 26, 1932. His family moved to Dyess, Arkansas when Cash was three years old. Johnny’s brother, Tommy Cash, Johnny’s brother, says they sang church hymns while working the cotton fields, and his grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher. Lou Robin, Johnny Cash’s manager, says his family was deep into patriotism.

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It’s said that, as children, Johnny and his brother Jack were inseparable. However, Jack was killed by a table saw the accident, and it’s said to have made Cash feel guilty. It also caused a bitter rift between Johnny and his father, Ray. Johnny Cash felt he would never measure up to what his father wanted, which may have been part of his psychological drive for success, and his drug problems later in life. Also, his humble upbringing picking cotton made him sympathetic to the poor and working class. he would come to be known as “The Man in Black,” both for wearing black but also because he claimed in a song that it represented the downtrodden.

25 years later

In January of 1968, Cash famously performed at Folsom Prison. As Don Reid of The Statler Brothers put it, they accepted him as one of their own. Also, given his crossover sound and rebel persona, it’s said there’s no limit to who wanted to listen to his music. At this same time, the Vietnam War as increasingly controversial. The civil rights protests were all over the news. After Nixon lost to Kennedy, he wanted to revamp his career and won the Presidency in 1968.

He was considered “traditional,” stood against social upheaval, as pro-military and pro-war patriotism. Johnny Cash was already somewhat in contrast with this image. “The Johnny Cash Show” sometimes had anti-war guests like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. In fact, as others dismissed him as a communist traitor, Cash referred to Seeger as “One of the best Americans I know.” As ReMastered puts it: John walked a political line.

As an apparent clashing example, Johnny Cash was decidedly pro-Nixon on his show. Nixon responded by inviting him to perform at the White House (despite Nixon’s preference for classical music). Nixon generated some controversy, though, when he asked Cash to perform the controversial, exaggeratedly conservative songs “Okie from Muskogee” by Merle Haggard and “Welfare Cadillac” by Guy Drake.

Nixon identified with cash’s background somewhat. Nixon was apparently abused by father, growing up poor on a lemon farm. For him, Cash was a safe bet as a White House guest. Previously, Eartha Kitt had criticized Lyndon Johnson. Also, Carol Feraci, of The Ray Conniff Singers generated controversy by saying, “President Nixon, stop bombing human beings, animals and vegetation…If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb.”

Would Johnny Cash let Nixon down?

Johnny Cash was no stranger to controversy. Much to the dismay of some conservatives, he was an advocate for certain Native American causes. In fact, he released an entire album about their plight, called Bitter Tears. One song was “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” — about Hayes, a Native American who helped hoist the flag at Iwo Jima. Incredibly, the album Bitter Tears was actually boycotted by the music industry!

Meanwhile, the son of singer-songwriter Jan Howard died in Vietnam, which inspired Cash to write “Route #1, Box 144.” He also went to Vietnam and performed in 1969, where he witnessed the war. In fact, he later claimed that servicemen and prisoners have a lot in common, such as loneliness, boredom and isolation.

The big night

Johnny Cash performed on the same day the Apollo 13 crew safely returned, so it was already a pretty eventful day in history. However, Cash wasn’t upstaged by that. He did address the Vietnam War, talking about the supposed differences between “hawks” and “doves.” He said that, After you watch the wounded come in in the helicopters, if you were a dove, you might come away a dove with claws.”   He also performed the powerful song, “What is Truth,” with lines like, “Can you blame the voice of youth for asking ‘What is truth?,'” and also, “And it didn’t really matter if the truth was there, It was the cut of his clothes and the length of his hair…”

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Though Cash’s song didn’t change Nixon’s policy, it surely wasn’t what the President expected. Staying somewhat rebellious, Cash went on to sing Bob Dylan’s anti-war song “Blowin’ in the Wind” during a Veteran’s Day performance, and later watched the Watergate-related H. R. Haldeman trial — a trial which marked Nixon’s undoing. Even if Cash didn’t totally change his views, he definitely saw something in the changing times, and parts of his legacy went along with them.

That’s it for this recap of ReMastered: Tricky Dick & The Man in Black! What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!