Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash: Two Songwriting Titans Make History

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash - The Dylan/Cash Sessions

When it comes to creative freedom, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan have been two of the most historically defiant risk-takers among American singer-songwriters. Loyal only to the muse, it was inevitable that the paths of these two visionaries would eclipse during the most experimental and inspired phases of their careers, with an ensuing lifelong friendship.

Two Greats Collide

After making a huge dent in the country charts during the late 1950s, Cash began exploring and infusing his sound with music from the American folk tradition. When The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was released in 1963, the album captivated Cash (he incessantly played it backstage before his shows). When he wrote Dylan, an impassioned correspondence ensued.

The two eventually met at the 1964 Newport Folk Fest where they both appeared on the bill—Cash the seasoned country legend, Dylan the fresh new star. The two spent the evening picking in Baez's hotel room at the Viking Motor Inn with June Carter Cash, Joan Baez, Jack Elliot, and others. In a legendary moment, Cash pulled Dylan aside and handed him his Martin as a gift, a traditional gesture of honor among country musicians.

Cash in Dylan's Defense

In early 1964, Dylan began withdrawing from politics, stating he was done writing "finger-pointin' songs." Dylan slammed politics as a worthless cause the previous December during an award acceptance speech, and word on the street was that Dylan had sold out. The entire folk music scene was up in arms.

Spurred to action, Johnny Cash published a letter to the editor in the March issue of Broadside magazine, demanding that Dylan's detractors “SHUT UP! … AND LET HIM SING!” As Dylan later wrote of the Cash's defense of him, “Johnny wrote the magazine... [saying] to shut up and let me sing, that I knew what I was doing. This was before I had ever met him, and the letter meant the world to me. I've kept the magazine to this day.”

During his Newport set that July, Dylan played "Chimes of Freedom" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" two new songs that would soon appear on his third album released a month later, Another Side of Bob Dylan. Lacking political messages, and keeping to Dylan's promise, the album deviated greatly from everything he'd recorded to date. In reaction, Irwin Silber, editor of Sing Out! magazine, published “An Open Letter to Bob Dylan,” which lambasted the young songwriter, accusing him of falling into the fame trap and straying from his responsibilities as a “protest” singer in the folk movement.

Dylan and Cash Circa 1965-67

Dylan and Cash were huge mutual inspirations, each covering the other's songs accordingly. The first nod came in 1965 when Cash recorded his version of “It Ain't Me, Babe” for his album Orange Blossom Special. Then, following his 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan and The Band spent a good portion of the next year in Saugerties, NY, recording over 100 tracks for what became The Basement Tapes. Among the cover songs stuffed on the reels, Cash's presence looms large with Dylan doing “Belshazzar,” “Big River” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Duets were also a staple of the Cash/Dylan fraternity, and filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker captured the two dynamos caterwauling backstage on a couple of piano duets during Dylan's 1966 tour. You can catch a clip of Pennebaker's rare footage of them stumbling through “I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry” in Martin Scorcese's 2005 film, No Direction Home. Meanwhile, the legendary scene with the two dusting up on Cash's “I Still Miss Someone” is featured in Dylan's still-unreleased film, 1967's Eat the Document.

Nashville Skyline

Dylan recorded most of his first all-country record, Nashville Skyline, on February 13-14, 1969 in Nashville. At the wrap-up sessions on February 17-18, Cash—who'd been recording at the studio next door—dropped in to visit and ended up spending two days there, recording what's become known as the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash Sessions. The 23 duets the label-mates laid down included everything from Cash's “Big River” to Dylan's “One Too Many Mornings,” along with covers of Jimmie Roger's “Blues Yodel #1,” plus “That's All Right Mama” and “You Are My Sunshine.”

Although this session was a bootlegger's wet dream, few of the songs were strong enough for an official album release. However, the crème of the session, a duet of “Girl from the North Country,” was included as the opening track to Nashville Skyline, which also featured liner notes written by Cash. During his stay in Nashville, Dylan also ended up writing “Wanted Man” for Cash—a song the Man in Black would debut live to a cafeteria full of California inmates a week later at San Quentin penitentiary.

Johnny Gets His Own Show

Dylan was still very much in country mode when, on June 7, 1969, he appeared as the debut guest star on the premiere airing of ABC's new hit program, The Johnny Cash Show. The weekly series was explosively successful, lasting until March 31, 1971, after 58 episodes. Much to the producers' agitation, Cash loved controversy, doing things like inviting blacklisted activist-singer Pete Seeger on the show, and refusing to change the word “stoned” when he sang Kris Kristofferson's song “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

Nervous about having his very own TV show, Cash hammered record producer Bob Johnston to help him get Dylan for the first airing, believing that the show's success lay in the balance. In his first television appearance in four years, Dylan's performance was stunning. Besides debuting his newest country song, “I Threw It All Away,” Dylan performed “Lay, Lady, Lay,” as well as an arresting duet with Cash on “Girl from the North Country.”

“Cash Is King”

When Cash died on September 12, 2003, Rolling Stone magazine asked Dylan for a statement. In an essay called “Cash Is King," Dylan wrote:

In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him—the greatest of the greats then and now... Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English. I think we can have recollections of him, but we can't define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty.