Bob Dylan, who was just awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, has written some of the most poetic, culturally significant song lyrics of the past half-century. He’s also written tunes that have transcended folk, pop and rock and have been recorded by hundreds of artists in nearly every genre, including country music. One such devotee was Johnny Cash, who, at the close of a performance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, gave his guitar to Dylan.
“Country music is slow to jump on any trend,” Cash said in a 1968 Rolling Stone article. “But we’ve been affected greatly by the sound of the Beatles and the lyric of Bob Dylan.”
Cash was indeed one of the first to record several Dylan tunes, including morphing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – to which he kept the majority melody and changed the lyrics – into the six-week Number One country hit, “Understand Your Man.” That was in early 1964, when Dylanmania was about to be eclipsed by Beatlemania. But at the end of that same year, Cash teamed with his future wife, June Carter, to record a song that may have been meant to appease Cash’s wife at the time.
“It Ain’t Me Babe” was just a few months old when Cash and Carter teamed for the song, which originally appeared on Another Side of Bob Dylan, released in August. For his Orange Blossom Special LP, released in February 1965, Cash covered three Dylan tunes: “It Aint Me Babe, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind.” “Babe” became Johnny and June’s first hit duet, climbing to Number Four on the country chart and also hitting the Hot 100. Later, of course, they would have hits with “Jackson,” “If I Were a Carpenter” and more.
Five years married by the time of the above 1973 performance of “It Ain’t Me Babe” from Australia, the Cashes are obviously comfortable enough with each other on stage that when June flubs a line (around the 2:15 mark), Johnny gives her an unexpected squeeze and she makes a joke out of the gaffe. “It Ain’t Me Babe” is also one of the songs Joaquin Phoenix and Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon perform as the couple in 2005’s Walk the Line, and it has since been recorded by the Turtles, Bryan Ferry and Kesha, among many others, but this rendition, featuring the Man in Black and his wife is prize-worthy itself.