For a few years at Burning Man, a black car with painted flames drove around in the mornings blasting “I fell into a burning ring of fire” sung by Johnny Cash at very high decibel levels. Strange enough, that’s the song that most strongly reminds me of the experience being in BRC-- waking up to the absurd and annoying but welcome and hilarious sounds of mariachi trumpets blaring the intro to that song in the blinding heat of a brain addled morning- over and over again.
Last year I had the good fortune of hearing the story behind this song on NPR’s “This American Life.”
When Johnny Cash and June Carter met, they were each married to other partners. June was singing with her family, the Carter’s, the most respected and influential family in Country music at the time. Johnny, an egomaniacal and reckless speed addict, walked up to the devoutly Christian June and whispered in her ear “I’m gonna marry you one day.” June scoffed at the audacity of the big jerk.
After a time, June ended up singing back up in Johnny’s band. It was then that she fell in love with him, hard and uncontrollable, and was, at the same time, consumed with guilt. She is the author of this famous song… and “the burning ring of fire” refers to the pit of hellfire that she feared her soul was going to be plunged into because she, a married woman, was in love with a married man.
She kept this love a secret and gave the song to her little sister to record. Johnny heard this rendition, a sweet and sedate recording, and he had a dream that night of a mariachi band playing behind him. He recorded it immediately--with June, her little sister and her very staunch Christian mom singing backup to this song June wrote about her illicit love of a married man. Knowing this certainly makes my listening to the song a different experience.
Well, eventually June and Johnny did marry. June found herself in the difficult position of trying to deal with Johnny’s drug habits and late night boozing. When she finally recorded the song herself, it’s a very plaintive and bittersweet voice accompanied by her auto harp, sounding weary of this burning ring of fire that she had gotten herself into.
Johnny kicked his bad habits finally and the two of them went on to live a long, joyful and loving marriage together. The program featured another song, one of the first songs that the newlywed couple recorded about their love. In it, June sings prophetically, “and if I should die before you do, and I have a feeling that’s the way it’s going to be…”
Later that day I also heard an interview with Rosanne Cash, Johnny’s daughter by his first wife. She had just released a new CD, (which is incredibly beautiful, BTW) of songs she wrote trying to deal with losing her father, her mother and her step-mother, all within 2 years. It’s a wonderful personal tribute to her richly musical and legendary family. You can hear the interview at: