The Johnny Cash Song That Bob Dylan Considered ‘Up There At The Top’

“[O]ne of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time, a song that makes an attack on your most vulnerable spots, sharp words from a master.”

By Andy Kahn Feb 26, 2024 1:45 pm PST

While considered among the most iconic country musicians, Johnny Cash’s legacy includes a substantial influence on rock ‘n’ roll. When he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992, Cash’s impact was expressed in an essay written by Arthur Levy, which read in part:

“He’s the man in black, ‘a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.’ His six foot-plus, ebon-draped frame has worked itself deep into the American psyche to become as familiar to some as Woody Guthrie or Billy the Kid, Geronimo or Luke the Drifter.

“Johnny Cash is a little bit of all those American legends. During a career that spans five distinct decades, he has created more than 1,000 compositions that describe a folk hero in transition, singing in his distinctive baritoned-bass voice of coal miners and sharecroppers, cowboys and Native Americans, families and lovers. Invariably, he returns to his early years for strength and inspiration …

“Wherever his travels and his records took him in the years to follow — from the Carter Family and wife June, to Bob Dylan, to Dave Edmunds and Rockpile, and back full circle to Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis — the music of Johnny Cash would always reflect his Arkansas childhood, his coming of age in the service and his three-year hitch at Sun Records. To see and hear Johnny Cash perform today is to experience rock & roll survival at the hands of a true caretaker.”


Cash, who was born on February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas, was one of the earliest artists to bridge the gap between country and rock ‘n’ roll, infusing his music with a raw energy and rebellious spirit that resonated with the emerging rock scene of the 1950s and 1960s. His signature “boom-chicka-boom” rhythm, pioneered with his backing band The Tennessee Two, became a hallmark of not just country music but also influenced rockabilly and early rock ‘n’ roll acts like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Another legendary musician who was inspired and influenced by Johnny Cash was among the greatest songwriters of all time, the aforementioned Bob Dylan. Inducted into the Rock Hall in 1988, Dylan was an early fan of Cash, long before the pair came together as musical collaborators.

Dylan spoke highly of Cash, often citing a specific song written by The Man In Black as having had a profound impact on his future creative output. Cash’s third single and first major hit, “I Walk The Line” was released by Sun Records in 1956 and soon counted Dylan among those it captivated.

“[Cash] didn’t have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him,” Dylan wrote in his Chronicles memoir, adding:

“He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger.

“‘I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.’ Indeed. I must have recited those lines to myself a million times. Johnny’s voice was so big, it made the world grow small, unusually low pitched—dark and booming, and he had the right band to match him, the rippling rhythm and cadence of click-clack. Words that were the rule of law and backed by the power of God.

“When I first heard ‘I Walk the Line’ so many years earlier, it sounded like a voice calling out. ‘What are you doing there, boy?’ I was trying to keep my eyes wide opened, too.”


Dylan again noted the lasting impact of “I Walk The Line” when he wrote an essay memorializing Cash after he died in 2003 at age 71. Dylan’s tribute, which he said could have been titled “Cash Is King,” was published by Rolling Stone:

“I was asked to give a statement on Johnny’s passing and thought about writing a piece instead called ‘Cash Is King,’ because that is the way I really feel. 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. I first met him in ’62 or ’63 and saw him a lot in those years. Not so much recently, but in some kind of way he was with me more than people I see every day.

“There wasn’t much music media in the early Sixties, and Sing Out! was the magazine covering all things folk in character. The editors had published a letter chastising me for the direction my music was going. Johnny wrote the magazine back an open letter telling the editors 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.

“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. It was profound, and so was the tone of it, every line; deep and rich, awesome and mysterious all at once. ‘I Walk the Line’” had a monumental presence and a certain type of majesty that was humbling. Even a simple line like ‘I find it very, very easy to be true’ can take your measure. We can remember that and see how far we fall short of it.

“Johnny wrote thousands of lines like that. 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. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul. This is a miraculous and humbling thing. Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses. He rises high above all, and he’ll never die or be forgotten, even by persons not born yet — especially those persons — and that is forever.”

Dylan re-recorded a version of his song, “Girl From The North Country,” as a duet with Cash for inclusion on Dylan’s acclaimed 1969 album, Nashville Skyline. The song was played by Dylan and Cash on the May 1, 1969 premiere episode of ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show. The pair recorded other songs during the sessions for the album, which were later released along with other collaborations on the archival Travelin’ Thru—The Bootleg Series Volume 15 1967-1969 that was issued in 2019.

Listen to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon perform “I Walk The Line” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” during a concert held on June 19, 1999 at Shoreview Amphitheatre in Mountain View California, plus Johnny Cash’s original 1956 single for Sun Records, below:


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