At first glance, the juxtaposition of country singer Johnny Cash with political folk singer Bob Dylan may seem an odd one. But there is no doubt that they were familiar with each other’s work before they met in the early Sixties. After Cash died in 2003, Dylan wrote: ‘Of course, I knew of him before he ever heard of me. In ‘55 or ‘56, “I Walk The Line” played all summer on the radio, and it was different than anything else you had ever heard. The record sounded like a voice from the middle of the Earth. It was so powerful and moving.’
When Dylan, nearly ten years his junior, arrived on the scene in 1962, Cash was equally moved. ‘I was deeply into folk music in the early Sixties,’ he wrote in his autobiography Cash, ‘both the authentic songs from various periods and areas of American life and the new “folk revival” songs of the time, so I took note as soon as the “Bob Dylan” album came out in early ‘62 and listened almost constantly to “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” in ‘63…’
The pair corresponded before they met at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, where Cash gave Dylan his guitar as a gesture of respect.
Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman into a Minnesota mining community in 1941 where his father ran an electrical store. Expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, he would have none of it. He was a natural musician, learning guitar, harmonica and piano before he was 10, and hung around the record stores in his teens. Leaving for university in 1959, he soon became absorbed in the evolving coffee-bar folk culture. By all accounts, his singing was terrible, but he improved fast and had his first paying music job in 1960 – playing piano. He then discovered Woody Guthrie and moved to New York.
He was soon offered session work as a harmonica player, and through this landed a recording contract at Columbia. His eponymous debut album, released in 1962, contained two original songs: ‘Song To Woody’ and ‘Talkin’ New York’. The remaining tracks are all included on these CDs, and consist of traditional songs arranged and sung in Dylan’s inimitable style, such as ‘Pretty Peggy-O’, ‘In My Time Of Dyin’’, ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, ‘Gospel Plow’ and ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’. These are mixed with blues and gospel numbers such as ‘You’re No Good’, ‘Fixin’ To Die’, ‘Highway 51’, ‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’ and ‘Freight Train Blues’, plus Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’.
In 1961 and 1962, Dylan was already in demand. Many of the live radio and stage shows he recorded in those years have survived, and we also present a selection of live recordings that presage his second album. ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, Dylan’s most covered song, appears here from the 1962 Broadside show, but would kick off the ‘Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ album shortly afterwards. ‘Corrinna, Corrinna’ also appeared on that second all-acoustic album, unlike ‘Mixed Up Confusion’.
Johnny Cash, born in 1932 during the Depression in the American South, worked as a teenager on his parents’ small cotton farm. Life was hard and music a relief, so it was no surprise when he learned to play the guitar to accompany his unique singing voice. Religion was also important, and both this and his early family life continued to influence his writing. Original songs such as ‘Five Feet High And Rising’ and ‘In Them Old Cottonfields Back Home’ commemorate his early years.
Joining the Air Force in 1950, Cash was posted to Germany. Here he performed live, practised guitar and started songwriting. When he walked into Sun Records, owner Sam Phillips encouraged Cash to move away from gospel-oriented music, and 1956’s ‘I Walk The Line’, a Number 1 country hit, became familiar to the young Dylan when it crossed over to the pop Top 20. ‘So Doggone Lonesome’ is another recording from these early Sun days.
Like Dylan, Cash was inspired by the social consciousness of the folk movement and fused this with his rural conscience. He moved in 1958 from Sun to Columbia Records, where Dylan would join him a few years later.
The pair’s friendship remained strong and, in 1969, they recorded more than a dozen duets. Only one of them, a version of Dylan’s ‘Girl From the North Country’, originally on ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’, was ever officially released on the album ‘Nashville Skyline’, although the others have long circulated as bootlegs.
Dylan was one of a select band of folk singers who moved into political songwriting in the Sixties, paving the way for a generation, while Cash too inspired a huge range of musicians from country through to punk. Each had a huge influence on the direction of popular music, and the selection offered here gives a tantalising glimpse of how their worlds collided in the early Sixties.