Cash's Burning 'Ring Of Fire' Turns 50

The strange and wondrous song was one of Johnny Cash's biggest hits. Host Rachel Martin speaks with Noah Berlatsky, who wrote an article for the Atlantic and says that it was Cash's love song to himself.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Love is a burning thing that makes a fiery ring. That, my friends, is musical poetry. OK, maybe not, but it is the opening line to one of Johnny Cash's biggest hits. "Ring of Fire" turns 50 years old this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RING OF FIRE")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Love is a burning thing, and it makes a fiery ring.

MARTIN: Noah Berlatsky is a regular contributor to The Atlantic, and a recent piece of his caught our eye. Noah says that classic ballad, "Ring of Fire," is love song sung by Johnny Cash to Johnny Cash. We were intrigued, so we called Noah Berlatsky up to talk more about this particular Cash classic. Hey, Noah, thanks for being with us.

NOAH BERLATSKY: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, first off, what does that mean: this is a love song to Johnny Cash by Johnny Cash?

BERLATSKY: Well, that song was originally written by June, along with Merle Kilgore. It was about falling in love with Johnny Cash.

MARTIN: You said she wrote this song - June Carter actually wrote this. She appears in the back-up harmonies. Does she come through really clear with a strong part of her own in this song? Do we hear her in here?

BERLATSKY: I don't think exactly. I mean, it's the Carter family - the three sisters together. You don't hear June's voice alone but she's there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RING OF FIRE")

CASH: (Singing) And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire...

BERLATSKY: It's odd in his canon, in that, I mean, he has Mexican horns on it. They sort of come in out of nowhere, and there's no lyrical reason for them to be there. When I was looking up the song, apparently he had a dream in which there were Mexican horns in the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RING OF FIRE")

CASH: (Singing) I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher...

BERLATSKY: Johnny Cash was a really scary guy at that point - addicted to pills and, you know, occasional violent outbursts. So, falling in love with him was this scary thing to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RING OF FIRE")

CASH: (Singing) The taste of love is sweet, when hearts like ours meet...

MARTIN: Why'd you want to write about this? You big Johnny Cash fan - what does this song mean to you?

BERLATSKY: Oh yeah, I love Johnny Cash. I've been listening to Johnny Cash probably since I was seven or something. You know, my parents were into the folk revival. They were into Arlo Guthrie and Woody Guthrie, but, of course, Johnny Cash was part of that milieu as well. And I think especially since Rick Rubin releases later in his career - he's often thought of as being a dark folk performer. But, you know, "Ring of Fire" is really a pop song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RING OF FIRE")

CASH: (Singing) And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire...

MARTIN: Well, Noah Berlatsky, thanks very much. He is a regular contributor to The Atlantic and a big Johnny Cash fan. Hey, Noah, thanks again.

BERLATSKY: And thank you for having me.

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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