Nowadays, most people have heard about President Richard Nixon's infamous meeting with Elvis Presley in 1970, which has since become a feature film. But country legend Johnny Cash - who was born 85 years ago today - had a similar sit-down with the 37th president in 1972. And instead of asking to be made an honorary narcotics agent like Elvis, the Man in Black arrived to talk about prison reform with Nixon.
By that time, Cash had become an outspoken advocate for the rights of prisoners. He testified before the U.S. Senate on the state of America's penal institutions. And he performed many concerts for inmates - including the live albums 'At Folsom Prison' (1968) and 'At San Quentin' (1969). So he was the perfect celebrity to bring up the issue with Nixon, who exacerbated the problem by locking up pot smokers and other non-violent cannabis offenders in his dubious War on Drugs.
But before chatting with Nixon, Cash had to perform a concert for the commander-in-chief, his family and a small audience at the White House. The president, who wanted to hear some of the squarest tunes on the radio, specially requested two of the squarest songs around at the time: Merle Haggard's 'Okie from Muskogee' and Guy Drake's 'Welfare Cadillac', which Nixon probably liked because of their respective anti-marijuana and anti-welfare lyrics.
Cash wasn't having it.
"When the request came down, I said okay, fine, whatever you like to hear," he told Dan Rather shortly after the performance. "But then I heard 'Welfare Cadillac' and I just simply couldn't do it. I asked the secretary if it'd be okay if I didn't do it - that I'd rather not. And I asked him to let me play my own program."
The secretary agreed, but probably regretted that decision shortly afterward. The set Cash played included the song, 'What Is Truth?', perhaps the most anti-Nixon song in Cash's discography. If the song's sympathetic treatment of hippies and rock music didn't irk Nixon, its anti-war theme must have. And the tune's parting message almost sounds like the writing on the wall for Nixon's America:
The ones that you're calling wild
Are going to be the leaders in a little while
This old world's wakin' to a new born day
And I solemnly swear that it'll be their way
You better help the voice of youth find
"What is truth?"
Check out clips from the White House performance in this video.
Banner image :Johnny Cash sings a duet with a Navy lieutenant c. 1987 (wikipedia.org)