RAMBLIN': Johnny Cash: Including an Easter spiritual on his "Best of" album

Mar. 31—Easter has served as the inspiration for some great songs, some of which have already become standards, with others on their way to doing so.

Some of the best Easter-related songs are relatively new, written, recorded and performed in the 21st Century, while others go back to the previous one.

One of the my favorites is believed to date back even farther to the 19th Century, first published in a songbook in 1899, but alluded to in even earlier writings.

Called "Were You There (When they Crucified My Lord)", it is believed to have derived from African-American origins, in a style of music that came to be known as spirituals.

The version with which I'm most familiar tells the story of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection through asking four different questions.

Although the questions are never conventionally answered, the song's lines provide answers in the form of the questions themselves.

I first heard the song when I was a kid when we were visiting my then 20-something Aunt Dee Anna's house in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Back when she was a teenager at her parents' house in Adamson, she'd introduced the pre-school me to the recordings of Elvis Presley and Little Richard, serving as my own personal disc jockey — something Ive never forgotten.

After an introduction like that, I already had great esteem for her taste in music.

As I looked through her collection of record albums, one immediately grabbed my attention: "Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash."

I already knew "Ring of Fire" as a gigantic hit for Cash.

Written by his future wife, June Carter along with their friend, Merle Kilgore, "Ring of Fire" had originally been recorded in 1963 by June's sister, Anita Carter, a track she included on her album, "Folk Songs Old and New."

Cash later said he heard the song in a dream, sped up to a faster tempo with the sound of Mexican mariachi horns. He then told Anita if her version of the song failed to hit, he would record it himself — using the style and sound he heard in his dream.

Some have attributed Cash's inspiration to use the mariachi trumpets on his version of the song to the fact that Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass used the sound on their #2 hit, "The Lonely Bull," the previous year.

However, Cash likely had a more direct connection to the sound of mariachi music.

Long before he became a recording artist, he went through basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, and then technical training at Brooks Air Force Base, both of which are in San Antonio, Texas.

Surely Cash had plenty of opportunities to hear mariachi bands while living in San Antonio.

During my last visit to the city to attend a National Newspaper Association awards program, some band members strolled right up to my table at a Mexican restaurant and played a mariachi version of "San Antonio Rose."

How did it sound? Excelente!

When Anita Carter's version of "(Love's) Ring of Fire" failed to hit on the charts, Cash made good on his promise and recorded his version, which shot to #1 on the county music charts for seven weeks.

It also peaked at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100, which included all genres of music.

And the album, "The Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash," happened to be the first #1 album on the Billboard Country Album Chart, when the charts debuted with its first-ever country music album rankings.

Back at my aunt's house in New Mexico, as I looked over the album's track listings, I didn't see many of Cash's biggest hits included, other than "Ring of Fire," of course.

Looking back today, though, I think the album's calling itself "The Best of Johnny Cash," is an accurate description of his Columbia recordings at the time.

After all, it didn't claim to be Cash's greatest hits, but his best.

Excluding his early recordings for Sam Phillips' Sun Records label in Memphis, which included "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues," I'd say the album title's claim of including Cash's "best" recordings for the Columbia Records label at the time was not far off the mark.

Little did I know as I placed the vinyl album on my aunt's record player, that. I was about to hear some of my favorite Cash recordings of all time.

After opening with the always powerful "Ring of Fire," the next track, a song called "I'd Still Be There," written by Cash and fellow country singer Johnny Horton, proved to be a little underwhelming.

Still, the next three tracks were great, all of which were written or co-written by Cash himself.

I'd always liked the energy and the feeling Cash brought to his song, "What Do I Care."

He followed that with one of his best songs ever: "I Still Miss Someone," co-written with his nephew, Roy Cash Jr.

Next up: "Forty Shades of Green" — a song I'd never heard before that day. It's a song Johnny Cash wrote after being inspired by a trip to Ireland, with the song's title referring to the many green hues in the Irish landscape.

Cash's "Forty Shades of Green" sounds so authentically Irish I've heard even some of the Irish think it's a traditional Irish song. It's another example of Cash's artistry as a songwriter.

None of which prepared me for what I was about to hear.

The last track on side 1 of the record was titled "Were You There (When they Crucified My Lord)" — another song I'd never previously heard.

I listened as Cash delivered a riveting version of the song. I could hear the emotion in his voice as it boomed out of the speakers as he sang the opening lines, which are the song's title.

Suddenly, I heard an ethereal angelic voice taking the third line: "Oh-oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble," followed by a cascade of other female voices echoing the word, tremble, with Cash finally joining in himself.

Wow! It had a dramatic effect on me. I hadn't expected to hear anything like that!

I eventually played side 2, where I discovered two more of my all-time favorite Cash songs, "The Big Battle" and the ever-popular "Tennessee Flat Top Box."

It also included Cash's recording of"The Rebel — Johnny Yuma" — a song Cash recorded for the television show of the same name, starring James Dean's fellow actor friend, Nick Adams.

Also included were the theme to the hit western show "Bonanza." I felt surprised to learn the song had words, since they were never featured on the opening or closing scenes of the show itself: "Our birthright is this Cartwright bonanza."

Closing the album is the Rev. Thomas Dorsey's timeless song "Peace in the Valley."

Out of all the songs, though, "Were You There (When they Crucified My Lord)" left an indelible impression on me.

Years later, I got to learn the source of those ethereal female voices who joined in with Cash on the song.

I acquired a VHS tape of a movie called "The Road to Nashville." It featured the thinnest of plots about a promoter trying to convince a bevy of country music stars to perform on one of his shows.

It was an excuse to show each of the country artists he approached in performance, and I'd been elated to see Marty Robbins, Lefty Frizzell and yes, Cash, included among them.

I wondered which of his many hits Cash would sing. As he sat down to perform, I saw four women dressed in light blue dresses lined up behind him.

I recognized them as the second edition of the Carter Family, featuring Mother Maybelle Carter, and her daughters Sarah, Anita and June — who had yet to marry Cash.

As they sang, I waited to see which of the sisters would render forth the ethereal vocals I remembered from that original recording.

To my then-surprise, it wasn't June, but her sister Anita — who I've come to consider one of the greatest female country music vocalists ever. Yes, the same Anita who originally recorded "(Love's) Ring of Fire."

My other surprise came from Cash's appearance. Instead of the healthy, exuberant Cash I was used to seeing at the time, the Cash performing on "The Road to Nashville" — obviously filmed much earlier — had a gaunt, emancipated look about him. As the saying goes, not the sort you'd want to meet in a dark alley.

Even so, there is no doubt he felt every word of "Were You There" deep in his soul.

Cash's fans know how the story ends. With June Carter's help, he kicked his addiction to pills and became a passionate witness for his Christian faith.

Anyone who questions the restorative power of his faith need only to view Cash's performance of "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)" to see and hear it firsthand.