My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Classic Rewind – Johnny Cash – ‘What Is Truth?’

I heard this song for the first time recently. The opening verse reads almost like a premonition (especially true today) and stopped me in my tracks:

The old man turned off the radio
Said, “Where did all of the old songs go
Kids sure play funny music these days
They play it in the strangest ways”
Said, “it looks to me like they’ve all gone wild
It was peaceful back when I was a child”
Well, man, could it be that the girls and boys
Are trying to be heard above your noise?
And the lonely voice of youth cries “What is truth?”

 

I couldn’t have said it better!

4 responses to “Classic Rewind – Johnny Cash – ‘What Is Truth?’

  1. Ken Johnson July 1, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Johnny Cash wrote this song and released it as a Columbia single in early 1970. Around that time he performed it on this clip from his weekly ABC-TV show. The studio recording climbed to #3 on the Billboard country chart during the final week of May 1970. It also peaked at #19 on the Hot 100 pop survey one week earlier. It became a “lost” Cash single because it was never released on a Johnny Cash album during that era. His subsequent single “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was issued on “The Johnny Cash Show” LP released later that year and exclusively featured live recordings from the soundtrack of his ABC-TV program. “What Is Truth” did not receive an album release until the 1982 compilation “Johnny Cash Sings His Best” issued by Vista Marketing & Gusto Records via Columbia Special Products. Since the beginning of the CD era that song is now available via several compilations including a CD reissue of that 1982 collection available from the TeeVee label (TVCD-6006)

    To give this song context, when it was released 43 years ago the Vietnam War was the driving force in America. The previous year more than 11,000 American servicemen were killed. Weekly casualty totals occupied the headlines as hundreds of young men were drafted into military service. Dissatisfaction with a war that seemingly had no end in sight was growing exponentially with young people. It was also the era of peace/love/Woodstock. The hairstyles, clothes and music of young people ran completely contrary to what the older folks who constituted the “establishment” were familiar or comfortable with. Johnny Cash’s lyrics pretty well summed up what most folks on the younger side of “The Generation Gap” were feeling at that time. But as the 1970’s wore on the Vietnam War and the draft ended and major social protests diminished. That song lost significance and eventually disappeared from most radio station oldies libraries and the consciousness of most folks except for die-hard Cash fans.

    Obviously the song offers some parallels with today’s issues though with major differences. Again our country is at war though this time with a volunteer force so no one is forced to serve against their will. Many of the social issues from that era have been resolved though there still injustices. Young people still dress oddly and favor unusual hair styles. Now for some reason they really seem to enjoy tattoos which I’ll never understand. But the old saying still holds true – the more things change the more they stay the same.

    Here’s a link to the studio version of Cash’s song:

  2. Paul W Dennis July 1, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    THis song received very little airplay in the area where I lived, so I assumed it was a single that had stiffed fro Cash, maybe nudging its way into the top forty. I wasn’t until I obtained a copy of Joel Whitburn’s TOP COUNTRY SINGLES 1944-1997 that I realized it had reached #3.

    Since it was one of Cash’s weaker singles, I still not sure I believe it got that high

    • Ken Johnson July 2, 2013 at 8:52 am

      Paul:
      In the area where I lived this single received substantial airplay on country music stations AND the top 40 stations. It was exciting whenever I heard country songs played on top 40 radio as most of my friends were not country fans. It was great to point out to them that country music must be OK if THEIR favorite stations played country songs too!

      “What Is Truth” was released when Cash’s career was at it’s apex as the follow-up to the “If I Were A Carpenter” duet with June Carter. Given his massive popularity during that era I would have been surprised if the song had NOT become a huge hit. No question that the timely subject of the song gave it a much shorter shelf life and prevented it from becoming a long-lasting Cash favorite. No immediate album release may have also been a contributing factor. However it did not diminish the impact that the song had at that point in time. The record stalled at #3 in Billboard primarily due to massive hits rotating the #1 and #2 slots – “Hello Darlin'” by Conway Twitty and “My Love” by Sonny James. Cash’s single also hit #3 in Cashbox.

      Perhaps the radio stations that you listened to had a Johnny Cash bias or were programmed by older “establishment” guys that disagreed with Cash’s message of understanding and tolerance of the younger generation that limited airplay for that record.

      • Paul W Dennis July 2, 2013 at 8:40 pm

        You may be correct Ken because the local country DJ’s and Program Directors tended to be middle-aged . The local college stations gave the song a little airplay . I should note that Cash did get considerable airplay in my area as there were a good ten or twelve older songs that got interjected into the programming mix, including a song few remember called “Rosanna’s Going Wild” , plus “Ring of Fire”, “Daddy Sang Bass”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “I Walk The Line” and “Orange Blossom Special” .

        I’m not entirely sure that political considerations were the chief factor in the relative lack of airplay. “What Is Truth” may be the least melodic single that Cash issued during the 1960s and 1970s and the lack of a melodic “hook” meant that there wasn’t anything about the song to bring listeners back for repeated hearings

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