The Coolest Thing You’ll See All Week: Johnny Cash’s Stirring Debut of “Man in Black”

by Steve Spohn
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JohnnyCash72FeaturedThere aren’t many instances when a song – one that will become hugely influential – has been performed live for the first time and the audience has truly understood the significance of the moment. This week’s “Coolest Thing” captures one such instance.

Johnny Cash debuted his now-classic “Man in Black” on February 17, 1971, at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. It was a tense time in America’s history as civil unrest and the ongoing horror of the Vietnam War threatened to tear the country apart.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner
Who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he’s a victim of the times

Cash1969According to Cash, who was just days shy of his 39th birthday on the night of the debut, “Man in Black” (or “The Man in Black”) was conceived after he visited Vanderbilt and talked with students about the challenges facing the country. He then returned to campus the following week to perform the song live for the very first time.

Johnny laid out the “Man in Black” backstory in his moving intro to the Vanderbilt students that night in 1971 at the Ryman Auditorium:

…I talked to several of you, and we asked each other a lot of questions. I asked you questions; you asked me questions. An idea for a song started brewing then, and since I saw you last Saturday, I wrote this song. And I just finished writing this song – the fourth or fifth re-write – this morning. So that’s why I got to have the cards to remind myself of what the words are – the last version I wrote. This song is a very personal thing, I suppose you might say, but it’s the way I feel about a lot of things. This song is called, “The Man in Black.”

“Man in Black” is one of the greatest late-stage Vietnam protest songs ever written, but it’s much more than “just” a song protesting war. It addresses an array of social injustices (as Cash and the Vanderbilt students saw them) – like unfair treatment of the elderly and the poor, and the unacceptable cost of war – that were playing out in the early-’70s.

Johnny’s words of protest are still relevant today.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold
I wear the black in mournin’
For the lives that could have been
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men

When he finished performing “Man in Black” for the first time, Johnny received a long and moving standing ovation. Rest in peace, Mr. Cash.

Steve Spohn is a former Saturday Night Live and Nickelodeon Television executive. Growing up near Princeton, NJ, led to a musical addiction, with WMMR in Philly and WNEW in NYC providing the daily dose. When not attending or planning to attend Bruce Springsteen concerts, he's plugging away as a screenwriter in Beverly Hills. Reach Steve at