Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash had formed a mutual admiration society even before they met in the early 1960s.
"Of course, I knew of him before he ever heard of me," Dylan wrote shortly after Cash's death in 2003. "In '55 or '56, 'I Walk the Line' played all summer on the radio, and it was different than anything else you had ever heard. The record sounded like a voice from the middle of the Earth. It was so powerful and moving."
When the young Dylan arrived on the scene in 1962, Cash was impressed.
"I was deeply into folk music in the early 1960s," he wrote in Cash: The Autobiography, "both the authentic songs from various periods and areas of American life and the new 'folk revival' songs of the time, so I took note of Bob Dylan as soon as the Bob Dylan album came out in early '62 and listened almost constantly to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in '63. I had a portable record player I'd take along on the road, and I'd put on Freewheelin' backstage, then go out and do my show, then listen again as soon as I came off."
Cash wrote the young Dylan a fan letter, and they began corresponding. When they met at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, Cash gave Dylan his guitar as a gesture of respect and admiration. Five years later, when Dylan was in Nashville recording his ninth studio album, Cash was recording in the studio next door. He decided to drop in. On February 17 and 18, 1969, Cash and Dylan recorded more than a dozen duets. Only one of them, a version of Dylan's "Girl From the North Country," made it onto the album, Nashville Skyline. The others were never officially released, but have long been circulating as bootlegs. In the video above, Dylan and Cash work on one of two versions they made of "One Too Many Mornings," a song originally recorded by Dylan in 1964 for The Times They Are a-Changin'. The outtakes Dylan and Cash recorded together are all scattered around Youtube. One Youtuber posted a compilation back in 2013.
A few weeks after the release of Nashville Skyline, Dylan and Cash performed "Girl From the North Country" on The Johnny Cash Show. It was taped on May 1, 1969 at the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. A rough video clip (around the 30 minute mark) captures the moment. Despite Dylan's reported nervousness, the performance was well-received. "I didn't feel anything about it," Cash said later. "But everybody said it was the most magnetic, powerful thing they ever heard in their life. They were just raving about electricity and magnetism. And all I did was just sit there hitting G chords."
If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.