I hadn’t planned on including this song in the playlist, because while it’s a great one, it would never have occurred to me to sing it as a lullaby. But a few weeks ago, it came up in iTunes shuffle, and both my kids reacted to it immediately. My son wanted to hear it a second time. Then he asked for it a third time. Then a fourth. After nine repeats, we made him stop and go to bed. The next day he asked to hear it on continuous repeat for forty-five minutes or so. Evidently, it made an impression.
I’m glad my kid appreciates Johnny Cash, but his love for this particular song has led to some very awkward conversations about the lyrics and what they mean. “Why is love a burning thing? Why is he in a fire? What is wild desire?” How do you explain Johnny Cash’s romantic relationships to a preschooler? I’m doing my best to answer truthfully, while also not scarring the boy for life. It’s a delicate balance, much like our conversations about death or climate change or Donald Trump.
Having a chance to hear “Ring of Fire” so many times, I’m realizing how weird a recording it is. There’s an incredible mismatch between the song itself, Johnny’s delivery, and the instrumental backing. If you gave me the vocal track and told me to come up with accompaniment, I wouldn’t have thought of mariachi trumpets in a thousand years.. If you gave me the mariachi trumpets and asked me to write a song to go with them, I would have come up with a fun story about a weekend in Mexico, not the story of extramarital affair told using biblical imagery. Also, while we’re all used to Johnny’s flat and emotionless delivery, it really is a counterintuitive approach to such heavy and emotional material. And the final weirdness is that Johnny didn’t even write the song; June Carter and Merle Kilgore did. It was first recorded (very differently) by June’s sister Anita Carter. Johnny changed the phrasing and some of the lyrics. He said that the mariachi horns came to him in a dream, which, sure. Anyway, if you sing this slowly, it does work fine as a lullaby.
You can learn more about Johnny Cash here:
About the Curator - Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab (https://www.musedlab.org), Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza (https://musedlab.org/groovepizza). In collaboration with Soundfly, he has developed a series of online music theory courses (https://soundfly.com/courses/unlocking-the-emotional-power-of-chords). He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog (http://www.ethanhein.com), and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.