Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Ring of Fire – Johnny Cash

Ring of Fire

Written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore.  Performed by Johnny Cash. You can listen to the studio version here. For a neat duet of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, click here. Catch a live Cash version form 1963 here.

“I’ll give you about five or six more months, and if you don’t hit with it, I’m gonna record it the way I feel it.” Johnny Cash to Anita Carter, who first recorded the song.

Falling in love, a simple and powerful idea, yet those words have been so overused that they’re stripped of meaning. From the opening mariachi horns, Johnny Cash wakes us up to the meaning of falling in love, of falling into that “ring of fire.”  His voice, at once tough and desperate, conveys the truth of the experience, makes us understand that “love is a burning thing.”

Falling in love is not a deliberate act, not one we can pre-plan or guide. The heart goes and we follow. It’s a helpless feeling to want someone so much. In that early love, we don’t know what will happen, we don’t k now if the other loves us back or can ever feel the way we do about them. It is less a letting go, then a falling. No rational person would make that choice, and yet we can’t help ourselves. Johnny sings in that hard voice:

I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down
And the flames went higher

He knows. There is no cautious way down, no easy path. We fall and fall and fall, all the while our passions, our “wild desires,” rage.  There is no controlled burn, no way to direct our feelings. This is a wild fire, people get damaged.

June Carter and Johnny Cash knew of the biblical fire, the purifying fire that burns away the imperfect and impure. The ring of fire scorches what is untrue, burns away what doesn’t matter, leaves us alone with our desires.

The story goes that June Cater took the inspiration from a book of poetry that her uncle A.P. Carter had, yet the inspiration came from Johnny Cash. In the early 60’s, Johnny had tumbled into a spiral of drugs and booze, a hellion on the loose. Just look at his gaunt face in the pictures and videos of those days. June Carter came from the monumental Carter family, raised on the Bible and the right way of living. Yet she saw that man and could not help herself, could not pull back from the fall into that burning ring of fire.

The taste of love is sweet
When hearts like ours meet
I fell for you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild

She was a child, a young girl touring with this married man. She knew better. Anyone could see he was trouble, the type of man good girls shunned.  Yet when it came to love, none of that mattered. The heart will have its way and we have no choice but to follow. That fire torments as much as it pleases, that passionate love is an exquisite anguish. In a recent song, Bob Dylan sang, “Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you/It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow.” He knows the mix of suffering and pleasure, the ring of fire.

In the banality of our everyday lives, we wish love upon our children. We often hope they find a partner. When we do so, we forget the agony of love or we trivialize it. We forget that sense of falling, the loss of balance, the loss of all restraint. We forget the sweet torture of the flames, that burning desire. How do you prepare someone for that ordeal, for that passage through the fire? Play “Ring of Fire” and play it loud.

*****

June Carter co-wrote this song with Merle Kilgore and took the inspiration from a line of poetry her uncle A.P. Carter had underlined in a book of poetry. Anita Carter, June’s sister, released the song in November 1962, though her version never gained much traction. The story goes that Johnny Cash had a dream where he heard the song with mariachi horns. He supposedly told Anita, I’ll give you about five or six more months, and if you don’t hit with it, I’m gonna record it the way I feel it.” When Cash released his version, it shot to number one on the charts and revived a career that had begun to ebb. (Read notes from Otto Kitsinger on the song’s origins here.)

 In interviews, June Carter explained that the song captured the feeling she had for Johnny, her desire for him, yet she hesitated given his marriage and the downward spiral of drink and drugs. We know the large screen version of this story: they eventually marry and June helps lead Johnny back into the light of day.

Years later, an ad agency wanted to use the song for a hemorrhoids commercial. Roseanne Cash blocked their efforts saying, “The song is about the transformative power of love and that’s what it has always meant to me and that’s what it will always mean to the Cash children.” Amen.

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