When Johnny Cash Made ABC Censors Walk The Line
The Smothers Brothers – Dick and Tom – are hailed as freedom-of-speech heroes for their battles with CBS network executives who censored, and eventually cancelled, their trippy 1967-69 “Comedy Hour.” But few followers of music and TV history are aware that Johnny Cash also stood up to the company men who attempted to police his 1969-71 TV variety show.
In March of 1970 Johnny fought to bring then-controversial folk singer Pete Seeger to his show, despite the network’s fears that Seeger would perform songs critical of the Vietnam War and President Richard Nixon’s administration. Just a few years earlier, Seeger’s song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was cut from a Smothers Brothers show when he refused to remove a verse from the anti-war anthem. Seeger refrained from singing protest songs on the Johnny Cash Show, but the mere appearance of this peacenik pariah on network TV was considered a small victory for Cash in an age of hardline government clampdown on anti-war protestors (the Kent State killings were just months away). Here’s Pete:
In 1971 the Man in Black invited singer songwriter Kris Kristofferson to perform on his show. The two sang “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” with the lyric, “on the Sunday morning sidewalk; wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.” TV execs insisted they change the lyric to “wishing, Lord, that I was home.” But Johnny stood firm, and Kris’s original words remained. Keep in mind, youngsters, that this so-called hedonistic era was, nonetheless, ruled by all-powerful conservative star-makers like Ed Sullivan, who forced The Rolling Stones and The Doors to alter their drug- and sex-oriented lyrics for live TV appearances (the Stones complied, The Doors did not).
The 58 episodes of the Johnny Cash Show were recorded at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, which was then the home of the Grand Ole Opry. It featured legendary artists such as Bob Dylan (who appeared on the first show), Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Cass Elliot, Neil Diamond, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dusty Springfield, Arlo Guthie, Merle Haggard, James Taylor, Derek and the Dominos, and Louis Armstrong (in one of his last TV appearances).
In the late 1960s, few prime time television shows featured openly Christian headliners, but Johnny stuck to his values and the show succeeded despite “network anxieties.” Unfortunately, ABC canned the program in 1971 as part of an industry-wide “rural purge,” which resulted in the cancellation of popular rural-themed shows with older-skewing audiences on all three networks. But Johnny and his guests had fun while it lasted. Here’s a clip of him clowning with The Monkees (sans Peter Tork), in a show from 1969.
And, if that’s not weird enough for you, here’s a clip of Dennis Hopper reciting Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem “If” on Johnny’s show in 1970. If you can keep your head when all about you… (are getting stoned and blaming it on you!)
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