In April 1974, while the nation’s TV screens were tuned to the myriad twists and turns of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon four months later, Johnny Cash, long one of country music’s most outspoken, socially conscious entertainers released another of his “message” songs.
In the tradition of his previous spoken-word records “Man in Black” and “What Is Truth,” Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag” reflected the singer-songwriter’s patriotism and reaffirmed his faith in America at a time when many younger fans had still not forgiven him for visiting with Nixon at the White House two years earlier. During that visit, however, after Nixon mentioned two of his favorite songs, “Okie From Muskogee” and “Welfare Cadillac,” (neither of which were Cash’s), the iconic (and ballsy) performer instead played the anti-Vietnam War “What Is Truth” for the then-Commander-in-Chief. He then followed up with “Man in Black,” a theme to the downtrodden, and finished off with “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” detailing the plight of Native Americans.
While it’s uncertain whether he would have performed “Ragged Old Flag” for the president, the tune became a favorite in Cash’s live shows, in spite of criticism that it was overtly sentimental and jingoistic. “Ragged Old Flag,” however, couldn’t lift Cash out of a slump on the country charts at the time. After his ABC series was cancelled in 1971, although he remained a top concert draw around the globe, Cash had no Top Ten singles from 1973 to 1976. “Ragged Old Flag” stalled just outside the Top Thirty and the album barely cracked the Top 20.
In the Eighties, when Cash joined his friends Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson to form the Highwaymen, the supergroup shared the stage doing slogs old and new, as solo acts and together. Cash frequently dusted off his “Ragged Old Flag,” prefacing the story-song about a flag that has survived centuries of battle and other conflict, with his thoughts on what it means to live in a free nation. “I thank God for all the freedoms we’ve got in this country. I cherish them,” Cash tells the enthusiastic crowd in the clip above, although he found himself trying to quell the chorus of boos that broke out when he added, “Even the right to burn the flag.” But those who knew Cash – and his cheeky humor – knew he had more to say on the subject.
“Let me tell ya somethin’,” he said as the crowd protested. “Shhh. . . we’ve also got a right to bear arms and if you burn my flag, I’ll shoot ya.”
Noting the scandalous state of the country and the old flag’s threadbare condition, Cash asserts that he doesn’t like to brag, but changes his mind at the conclusion of his dramatic reading of the lyrics, saying, “On second thought, I guess I do like to brag. I’m mighty proud of that ragged old flag.”