The First Time Johnny Cash Sang “Man In Black” Is As Powerful Today As It Was In 1971

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We all know Johnny Cash as “The Man in Black” but he wasn’t always that way. The style choice was little more than that until Cash visited Vanderbilt University in 1971. Conversations he had on campus inspired a protest song which he later performed on his special “Johnny Cash On Campus.” The video shows one of the more powerful performances of country music you will ever see.


“This song is a very personal thing, I suppose you might say,” Cash said before singing his iconic song for the first time. “But it’s the way I feel about a lot of things.”

The song was the product of conversations Cash had with Vanderbilt students and, after a “fourth or fifth rewrite,” Cash sang the song to students with humility and clarity. The lyrics, decrying the state of poor Americans, wealthy politicians, the broken incarceration system, and the Vietnam War struck a chord with both the students who rose to their feet in applause after the final note.

“Man in Black” went on to chart as high as #3 on the Billboard Hot Country charts and #58 on Billboard’s Hot 100.