An Irishman's Diary

 

TODAY is Johnny Cash’s birthday. Were he still with us, he’d be 79. But he’s not, so he can no longer clear up a lingering controversy that marks its 50th anniversary this year: the question of whether he really did write the ballad Forty Shades of Green.

“Controversy” may be an overstatement. He said he wrote it. He owned the copyright. He’s always credited as writer. And there’s no evidence he wasn’t. Despite all of which, the song seems fated to have its origins questioned, as on one of the most popular forums for such discussions, the website mudcat.org, where an old thread on the subject resurfaced yet again this week.

The issue of its authorship is now half a century old, because so is the song. It first appeared in 1961 as a mere B-side on a single and, two years later, was among the titles rounded up for the compilation album Ring of Fire.

But no sooner had it been born than the popular assumption that it was older took off. Roseanne Cash recalls her father saying how, after performing it in Ireland soon afterwards, he was approached by an elderly man who congratulated him on his version of “that great old Irish folksong you sang there”.

Cash responded that, actually, he had written it himself. Whereupon the man gently chastised him for telling fibs and insisted it was traditional. The singer only ended the argument by agreeing. He may have decided, wisely, that he was being paid a back-handed compliment.

Of course, in the 1950s and 1960s especially, many old Irish songs were being dug up and refurbished for the folk revival. The Carter Family, into which Johnny Cash would marry, were among those who mined the vein. So did Bob Dylan, most famously in his anti-war ballad With God on our Side, which led to his mining licence being revoked by Dominic Behan.

The Behan-Dylan feud demonstrates how murky song origins can be. Dylan used the same tune as Behan’s The Patriot Game. But so he might, because it was a traditional air that predated both men. And Dylan had supplied his own lyrics, just as Behan had done. None of which assuaged the latter, who insisted that the plagiarism extended to such things as song structure.

Not that the air of Forty Shades of Greensounds even remotely traditional. The lyrics, on the other hand, could pass themselves off as being of earlier vintage. In fact, the song aside, it’s often suggested that the title at least was older, even though – for example – this newspaper’s archive is silent on the phrase for more than a century until its first mention in 1964.

On that occasion, the subject was postage stamps. “There may not be forty shades of green on the Irish postage stamps issued last month, but they are certainly gay and colourful,” reported the paper. And the joking reference was clearly to the song, by then being covered by Ireland’s showbands.

Cash’s ballad was, however, predated by a 1956 number (excuse the pun) called Forty Nine Shades of Green. He had probable heard this too, because it was by a prolific duo who wrote songs for Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, and many others. And it was recorded by the Ames Brothers, a quartet who had a long string of hits throughout the 1950s.

But the degree to which it might have been an influence on Cash is highly questionable. Forty Nine Shades of Greenhad nothing to do with Ireland. It was a cheeky love song – about “Lulu, Queen of the Burlesque” – and it tapped the colour only for comic potential.

Hence, the opening verse describes one of Lulu’s teasing dances, in which she removes endless layers of clothes, leading to the chorus: “She wore 49 shades of green, boy/Forty Nine shades of Green”. Verse two describes his friends’ envy about their relationship, with the chorus: “They turned 49 shades of green, boy/Forty nine shades of green.” The punch-line comes is verse three. Here, the singer’s boast that he would die for Lulu nearly becomes reality when she cooks their first meal and accidentally poisons him. Cue the chorus: “I turned forty-nine Shades of green, boy/Forty-nine shades of green.” In short, we can probably rule that song out of our inquiries as an influence on Cash, except perhaps for suggesting a title.

Something that rings truer as an explanation for his ballad is that, at the time, he believed he had Irish ancestry. He was also generally besotted with this country. So much so that he decided to express his love for it in music, and – it is said – wrote the song with map in hand, so that he could pick place-names to suit the melody.

This last detail would explain his impressive grasp of geography. In quick succession he mentions Dingle, Donaghadee, the river Shannon, Skibbereen, Tipperary town, and Dublin. Then, in need of two single-syllable end points on a north-south axis, he chooses “Cork” and “Larne”.

For the Co Antrim port, this made for a rare appearance in the sentimental Irish song-book. Elsewhere, the town’s unlovely reputation spawned a well-known phrase for keeping a judiciously low profile, ie: “as low as a Larne Catholic”. But later in life, Johnny Cash discovered that his ancestry was mainly Scottish. So maybe in his classic Irish song he had already sensed the truth.

In expressing a wish to walk to Larne, perhaps he was subconsciously heading for the ferry.