Although Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash were admirers of each other’s work, they only recorded together once and appeared together a handful of times. They first met, according to Cash’s son John Carter Cash, in a New York hotel room, although they also encountered each other at the historic Newport Folk Festival in the early Sixties. In 2014, John Carter Cash recalled the story his father told him about the hotel-room encounter, in which, according to the elder Cash, Dylan bounced up and down on the bed shouting, “I just met Johnny Cash, I just met Johnny Cash.”
Whatever the real story, Dylan would memorialize Cash after his death in 2003 by saying he was “the North Star” by which you could guide your ship, and he acknowledged the monumental impact Cash’s early hit “I Walk the Line” had on him, giving him credit for coming to the young folksinger’s defense when purists ripped into him for introducing electric instrumentation in his stage act and on record.
Cash, who would have turned 84 today, February 26th, wrote in his autobiography that he traveled with a portable record player so he could listen to the 1963 Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan LP before and after his shows, would collaborate with Dylan before the decade was over. While both were recording at Nashville’s Columbia Records studios, the pair worked on several tracks together with the idea of a duets LP. Of the dozen or so tunes they cut, the only one officially released at the time was “Girl From the North Country.” Still, Cash convinced the normally TV-reticent Dylan to appear on his ABC music series, where they performed the song together.
On October 16th, 1992, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the release of Dylan’s debut album, Cash, his wife June, and daughter Rosanne (who shares Dylan’s May 24th birthday), were among the dozens of performers who paid tribute to Dylan during an epic concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
The concert featured Stevie Wonder doing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” while Cash and his wife sang “It Ain’t Me Babe,” a song the couple recorded in 1965. But when Johnny Cash was a guest on the Late Night With David Letterman the night before the tribute concert, he performed a dynamic version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” making it his own with the distinctive rhythm of his early hits and delivering the searing protest song in his authoritative voice. During their interview segment, which follows the above performance clip, Cash confesses, “I was a little bit scared, that’s the first time I ever performed that song.” Asked for his thoughts on being in New York, Cash explained that he and June had an apartment in the city for several years and that he enjoyed the city’s great bookstores. “Have you seen Naughty Nurses? Have you got that one yet?” Letterman joked.
Thankfully, the subject quickly turned back to Dylan, with Cash telling the host how the pair first met at Newport in 1963, and that he and Dylan were still writing letters back and forth because they didn’t see each other often. Adding to the confusion surrounding the details of their first meeting, Cash then says they met at the folk festival in 1964. Regardless of when and how they first met, Cash and Dylan remained close. As Dylan so eloquently wrote in his tender tribute, “Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses. He rises high above all, and he’ll never die or be forgotten, even by persons not born yet — especially those persons — and that is forever.”