I hesitated at first to write much about Johnny Cash on this blog, mainly because I didn’t want to reveal just how obsessed with the Man In Black I really am. Fact is, there’s not much else I can do to deny it. According to my zune.net profile, since October 4th when I got my Zune, I have listened to Johnny Cash over 713 times, which averages out to about 6 songs every single day. Also, since I have about 30 albums of his (if you count the box sets for The Complete Sun Recordings, Unearthed, At Folsom Prison, and At San Quentin as one album each), it’s a matter of course that I should write about them here.
Today’s album is actually one of the first I ever obtained, the 2002 re-issue of Orange Blossom Special:
Orange Blossom Special fits into the whole Johnny Cash legacy as being one of the string of really successful mid-60’s albums he did for Columbia, when he was essentially on fire, starting right around the album Ring Of Fire: The Best Of Johnny Cash and ending up somewhere in the 70’s. Speaking of fire, the year of this album’s release, 1965, was also the year when Cash’s truck accidentally caused a forest fire, for which Cash was sued by the government, making him the first and possibly only person to be sued for started a forest fire.
All right, on to the album. It starts with the title track, which would become a hit that Johnny would use for most of the rest of his career, and as I mentioned in the At San Quentin album, it features a two-harmonica solo that is really fun to watch (not so bad to listen to as well). It also features a bit of dialogue between Johnny and some really old guy which, according to my dad, was quite the catch-phrase:
Man: Say man, when you goin’ back to Florida?
Cash: When am I going to Florida? I don’t know, don’t reckon I ever will
Man: Ain’t you worried about getting your nourishment in New York?
Cash: Weeelll I don’t care if I do-da-do-da-do-da-do-da-do-da-do
I really like it myself.
The next song is one of my absolute favorites of Cash, a cover of “Long Black Veil”, written by people I have no idea about and am too lazy to research. It’s about a man who is hung for a crime he didn’t commit, but wouldn’t give an alibi at the trial because he’d “Been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”, and the chorus goes:
She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me
It’s a great song and typically Johnny performed it by himself in concerts, which added to the isolated feel of the song. Quite a stunning effect.
The first of three Bob Dylan-penned songs on the album is “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, which is one of the more popular duets Johnny did with future wife June Carter. One thing Johnny Cash always did well was songs about disenchanted lovers, and he’s in top form on this particular track. The song also features mariachi horns, so beware if you have allergies.
The next song is “The Wall”, which is one that probably became more popular after At Folsom Prison, since it’s a prison song. It’s a great song about a prisoner who tries to escape from jail, with consequences strikingly consistent with Johnny Cash songs of this nature.
Then we have another Bob Dylan song, probably one of his most famous since it’s one of the very few I actually know, “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)”. In fact, Johnny’s version is better than Dylan’s, but this is one of the very few times when I feel like it’s not really Johnny’s song, which is probably why he later took the same melody and wrote a much better song called “Understand Your Man”. Such a move might be considered illegal these days, but Johnny Cash was very upfront about whatever music he stole from, heck even “Folsom Prison Blues” isn’t an original tune.
One thing that’s noticeably slim on Orange Blossom Special would be actual Johnny Cash-penned songs. The middle of the album contains 1 of the 2 original songs, “You Wild Colorado”, which is kind of a tribute to one of America’s greatest rivers which doubles as a love-lost song. It doesn’t stick around long, at 1 minute and 50 seconds, but it’s a nice song either way.
Then the third of the Dylan songs (also covered by Jeff Buckley many decades later) comes up, “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind”, which is a pretty good song, and kind of echoes the previously-mentioned disenchanted feel of the previous songs. This one feels much more genuine I think, but that might be because I have never heard the original. The song also features a bouncy saxophone solo, so again people with allergic reactions to horns may take caution and the proper medication.
The next song is what I would consider kind of bizarre. It’s called “When It’s Springtime In Alaska (It’s 40 Below)”, and is another duet with June Carter. It’s kind of a love song that ends badly, as he dances with “red headed Lil” in a saloon in Alaska, but then founds out that she’s “Big Ed’s wife to be” and he kills the singer with a knife, the thing that weirds me out about this song is that June sings the character of Lil and is just completely unaffected by any of it. I dunno, maybe you’ll just have to give it a listen. It makes a lot more sense when Johnny sings it by himself, which I’ve only ever heard on his Personal File compilation.
We then come to the second Johnny Cash original, “All Of God’s Children Ain’t Free”, which is a good semi-political song which serves as one of the many explanations as to why Johnny Cash never adopted the glitzy honky-tonk country singer image, so in essence it’s one of the songs about why Johnny Cash is way better than all other country singers. He’d later drive this point home with the song Man In Black, the album for which I don’t even think has ever come out on CD. Tragic waste, that.
The only track I’m not crazy about any time that Cash or anyone else sings it is “Danny Boy”, which is at the tail-end of the album and is preceded by about a 2 minute spoken intro, which is kind of odd for a 3 minute song. The spoken word part is great though because Johnny does an irish accent for it, and well he’s not known for his accent work. I will say I am a bit more fond of the version of Danny Boy that appears on American IV: The Man Comes Around, not least for the reason that there is a beautiful church organ in that version.
The next song is a cover of Maybelle Carter’s “Wildwood Flower”, which is nice because it’s probably the first “hit” country song ever, but it’s kind of weird to hear Johnny Cash singing it, since it was written by a woman from the viewpoint of a woman, and that’s always awkward to hear when it’s been turned around to be about a man, no matter how expertly. In this particular version Johnny Cash’s woman calls him her flower, see what I mean?
Finally, we come to a traditional gospel song called “Amen”, and it’s a good song, but probably better suited for live shows, as it is kind of stilted for the recorded version, but then again, a lot of Cash’s earliest gospel songs seemed that way. I guess it’s because he got so dang good at them after he kicked the drug habit, that it overshadows his previous efforts. Maybe I’m just too picky about my gospel music? Either way, it’s a good song.
There are some bonuses on the 2001 re-issue, most importantly “Engine 143” which is a Carter Family song about a train-wreck. It’s significant mostly for the reason that, in 2003 when Johnny Cash played his final show, it was at the Carter Family Fold and he ended with this song. Johnny Cash loved train songs, as his song “Like The 309” is the last song he ever wrote. The ending of the song, and thus the last words that Johnny sang in public was “Nearer, my God, to Thee”.
Now please excuse me as I wipe away a single tear.
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