Eugene Dunphy charts the life and times of the Man in Black, and examines his links to Ireland.


The son of Ray Cash and Carrie Cloveree, John Ray (‘Johnny’) Cash was born on the 26th of February, 1932, near Kingsland, Arkansas. One of seven siblings, the Cash family was beset by financial problems, so much so that during the great depression of the 1930s, Ray Cash became a sort of an “honourable hobo”, hopping on trains that would take him across the country in search of much-needed work.

At the age of eighteen, Johnny enlisted with the U.S. Air Force in Mississippi, where he trained as a Morse code radio interceptor. Posted to West Germany, he was demobbed in July, 1954, and left the USAF with an instrument that would change his life forever – an acoustic guitar.

On the 7th of August of that year, twenty-two-year-old Johnny married his long-time girlfriend Vivian Dorraine Liberto, at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in San Antonio.

“I wanted to settle down and raise a family,” he said, “and I wanted to sing, and I wanted to make records.”
Moving to Memphis, Tennessee, Johnny was signed to Sam Philips’ Sun Records, the label that had made a star out of Elvis Presley, and would soon sign Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.

1955 saw the release on Sun of Cry, Cry, Cry, the first of a string of self-penned hits for Cash, who soon acquired the moniker “The Man in Black”. Two years later the song was included on the album Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!, which also featured I Walk the Line and Folsom Prison Blues, soon to become mega-hits. It’s interesting to note that he wrote the latter song after watching the noir crime movie, Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.

In the summer of 1959, shortly after the release of his fourth album Songs of Our Soil, Johnny took a well-earned break in Ireland. Renting out a car for ten days, he and Vivian travelled throughout the country, savouring the sites and breathing the clean air of the numerous Irish coastal areas. The trip inspired Johnny to write Forty Shades of Green.

As Johnny himself recalled, he and Vivian were about to return to the U.S. on a plane when he casually remarked, “There must be forty shades of green back there,” to which Vivian replied, “Y’know, that would be a great title for a song.”

“I took her up on it,” said Johnny, “I scribbled out the words there and then, added the music later, and there it was!”

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own