Johnny Cash Once Played a Protest Song in Front of Richard Nixon

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 decry the war. Cash was in a position that most others were not, though: 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 abbreviated tenure as president, Richard Nixon hosted a series of musical acts at the White House. Though musical performances were always commonplace at the White House, they began to represent a wider slice 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 even accompanied Pearl Bailey on piano as she sang for French President Pompidou. 

Richard Nixon made music requests, but Johnny Cash’s song was very different

One of the more famous acts to play at the White House was Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. The pair came to play for the Evening at the White House concert series in 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War. 

According to the White House Historical Association, the president’s staff requested for Cash to play Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” and Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac.” Both songs were politically charged and spoke to what Nixon considered the Silent Majority. They disavowed protesters, drug use, and the youth. 

Cash turned down the request to play the songs, claiming that they weren’t his own and he didn’t have time to learn them. According to the Richard Nixon Foundation, Cash later explained that the message of each song would have become an issue if he’d had enough time to prepare. 

When he got to the White House, though, 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 the youth and features a distinctly anti-war message in its second verse.

At the end of the performance, in front of the president and the crowd of over 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 be back home and there will soon be peace in our mountains and valleys.”

Johnny Cash supported many progressive policies

Cash’s political activism extended far beyond this concert. According to the Daily Beast, Cash advocated for Native Americans so often that the media mistakenly thought he was part Cherokee.

He also actively pushed for prison reform. Cash, who faced his fair share of legal trouble throughout his life, performed at Folsom Prison in 1968. Following this show, he continually spoke out in favor of prison reform. He even testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee and spoke to Nixon about the issue.

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