Meaning of Man in Black – Johnny Cash

The legend of country music, the famous American performer Johnny Cash always appeared on stage in black clothes. A similar image became his hallmark, and the singer was nicknamed “The Man in Black.” He was constantly pestered with questions about why he prefers such a gloomy color. Johnny decided to respond with “Man in Black”, which turned out to be one of his biggest hits.

The idea to write the composition came to Cash after meeting with fans at Vanderbilt University. Apparently, the students asked Johnny too zealously about the reasons for his addiction to black, that he immediately sat down for the song, rehearsed it several times and performed it at a concert a couple of days later. The audience greeted the novelty with a standing ovation.

In the text of “Man in Black”, the musician explains that the black color in his clothes symbolizes his compassion for all those who suffer in a world full of troubles and injustice. He sings about social inequality, corruption, hunger and other societal ills, ending the song with the statement that he will wear black until good triumphs over evil.

Agree, a beautiful story in an even more attractive context. But Cash’s contemporaries recalled that, in fact, Johnny started wearing black for more mundane reasons. First, at the dawn of his career, dark clothes were the only way for his band members to dress in the same color scheme. Secondly, a black suit is much easier to maintain on tour. And later, when Cash became famous, there was no point in changing the image.

Drummer V.S. “Fluke” Holland (WS “Fluke” Holland), who performed with Johnny for a long time, recalled:

People often say to me, “Tell me why Johnny wore black.” And I answer that everything is, in fact, simple. Back when we were away on tour, the longer you could wear the clothes you were wearing, the better. If you wear black, the dirt on it will not be visible as quickly as on something else.

Mojo, 2012

And yet, the composition entered the history of modern music as a protest song condemning the attitude towards the poor, racism, cruel treatment of prisoners, wars and other vices of the world around us.

In March 1971, “Man in Black” was released as a single from the album of the same name. On the back of the record was the track “Little Bit of Yesterday”. It peaked at number three on the Billboard Country Songs Chart and peaked at number 58 on the Hot 100.

Interesting Facts

  • Johnny is said to have been teased by his friends as an “undertaker” because of his addiction to black clothes.
  • The US Navy refers to the black uniform as “Johnny Cash”.

Man in Black lyricsMan in Black lyricsWell, you wonder why I always dress in black,
why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.
Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.
And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen’ that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen’ that we were all on their side.
Well, there’s things that will never be right I know,
And things need changing everywhere you go,
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.
Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black
Why don’t you ever see bright colors on me
And why is my appearance so gloomy.
There is an explanation for the things I wear.
I’m dressed in black for the poor and the downtrodden
Who live in a hopeless, hungry part of town
I’m dressed like this because of a prisoner who has served his time long ago,
But he remains in prison, as he is a victim of time.
I’m dressed in black for those who never read
And did not hear the words of Jesus
About the way to happiness through love and mercy.
Well, consider: He speaks directly to you and to me.
We’re all right, I guess
We’re in shiny cars and pretty clothes
We should be reminded of those left behind
That’s why the Man in Black is needed here.
I’m dressed like this because of the sick and lonely old people,
Because of those who suffered because of rash acts.
I’m dressed in black in mourning for unborn lives
Because every week we lose a hundred great guys.
And I’m dressed like this because of the thousands who died
Who believed that God was on their side
I’m dressed like this because of a hundred thousand other dead
Who believed that we were all on their side.
I know some things will never get better
And everywhere you go there’s a lot to change
But until we start moving towards the right change,
You won’t see me in a white suit.
Ah, I wish I could dress up in a different color of the rainbow every day.
And tell the world it’s alright
But I’ll try to bear some darkness on my back
Until the situation clears up, I am the Man in Black.

Song quote

… it reflects sadness, convulsions, just a mythical-gloomy darkness in the soul, which he so often overcame.

Rosanna, daughter of Johnny Cash, Mojo, 2008

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