The Vietnam War kicked off one of the more polarizing periods in American music. Artists declared their support or condemnation of the war through music. Like many others, Johnny Cash used his song lyrics to ease the war. Cash was in a position that most others were not, however: he was able to play his protest song directly to the President of the United States.
The White House hosted an entertainment series
During his brief tenure as president, Richard Nixon hosted a series of concerts at the White House. Although musical performances were always common in the White House, they began to represent a wider piece of popular culture in the 60s and 70s. For example, Duke Ellington hosted a 1969 jazz concert for his 70th birthday, and Merle Haggard came to play country music.
In his time as president, Nixon hosted everyone from Ray Charles to Frank Sinatra. Nixon was also on piano with Pearl Bailey as he sang for French President Pompidou.
Richard Nixon requested for music, but Johnny Cash’s lyrics were very different.
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash were among the more famous acts to play in the White House. The pair came to play for the Evening in the White House concert series in 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War.
According to White House Historical Association, the President’s staff requested cash to drive Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” and Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac”. Both songs were politically charged and spoke of what Nixon believed to be the Silent Majority. He rejected protesters, drug use and youth.
Cash turned down requests to play the songs, claiming that they were not his own and that he did not have time to learn them. According to Richard Nixon Foundation, Cash later explained that the message of each song would have been an issue if he had had enough time to prepare.
When he arrived at the White House, however, Cash sent a clear message to the president. In addition to “A Boy Named Sue” and several gospel songs, Cash played “What Is Truth”. The song advocates for youth and has a distinctive anti-war message in its second stanza.
At the end of the performance, in front of the president and a crowd of more than 200, Cash said, “We pray, Mr. President, that you can end this war in Vietnam sooner than you hope or think. It can be done, and we hope and pray that our boys will return home and that there will be peace in our mountains and valleys soon.
Johnny Cash supported many progressive policies
Cash’s political activism extended far beyond this concert. According to daily animalCash advocated for Native Americans so often that the media mistakenly thought of him as part of the Cherokee.
He also actively pushed for prison reform. Cash, who faced legal trouble throughout his life, performed at Folsom Prison in 1968. After this show, he continued to speak in favor of prison reform. He also testified on a Senate Judiciary Committee and spoke to Nixon about the issue.
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