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“Every man knows he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash.” — Bono
There aren’t too many American musicians of the past century who left a richer legacy, or were more influential across a broader range of genres, than the Man in Black. Through six decades, Johnny Cash created music that spoke with power and eloquence to sharecroppers, punk rockers, prison inmates and hip-hoppers. Many of the songs he penned or famously recorded—”Big River,” “I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Get Rhythm,” “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “The Matador” and on and on — have not only become classics, but have been embraced as national treasures by Americans of every political stance, creed and ethnicity.
But Johnny Cash was not merely a great songwriter and singularly engaging singer. He was a cultural force. When he sang with a young Bob Dylan on Dylan’s gorgeous “Girl From the North Country” in 1969, the pairing was a quiet revolution, reconciling Dylan’s New Folk counterculture blues with Cash’s old-school, hillbilly honky-tonk.
When he recorded Peter LaFarge’s “Ballad of Ira Hayes” in 1964—and took it to No. 3 on the Billboard country charts—he brought the terrible tale of how one of the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima died, drunk and alone, to far more people than had ever heard the song or the story before.
When he released his magnificent, Rick Rubin-produced “American Recordings” albums in the 1990s and early 2000s (Unchained, Solitary Man, The Man Comes Around, etc.), Cash—by then in his 60s—introduced a new generation of listeners to his utterly unique sensibility and to one of the greatest, most immediately recognizable instruments in the history of American music: his deep, rumbling, unforgettable voice.
Here, in tribute to the one and only Johnny Cash, LIFE.com presents a selection of photos—many of which did not originally appear in LIFE—made for a November 1969 feature in the magazine titled “Hard-Times King of Song.”
Cash, LIFE told its readers, was a man who had lived hard, had come through and, by all measures, showed no sign of letting the limelight alter the essentials of who he was and what he believed.