As graduation ceremonies begin to take place throughout the nation — albeit under strikingly different circumstances than last year’s — we look back at one of country music’s most acclaimed graduates, J.R. Cash, who 70 years ago on this date earned his Dyess High School diploma in the tiny town of Dyess, Arkansas. Less than a decade later, after graduation and military service, he would begin his recording career, on the way to becoming Johnny Cash.
A popular student, Cash was elected class vice president in his senior year, and also served as an officer in the school’s chapter of Future Farmers of America. Although he had enjoyed singing, his guitar skills were, at the time, limited. He’d also only ever seen two concerts: a performance by the Louvin Brothers in the high school auditorium and, on a school trip to Nashville, a performance of the Grand Ole Opry, which included an appearance by the Carter Family, featuring young June Carter, his future wife. Still, a year before he graduated, Cash, a junior in high school, entertained students and attendees at the 1949 ceremony with a performance of a song that he would revisit many years later.
“Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” takes its lyrics from “To Celia,” a poem written in 1616 by English poet Ben Jonson, although various melodies to which it would be fused would come more than a century later. While never issued during his lifetime, Cash’s recording, essentially a guitar-vocal demo from 1973 (according to Michael Streissguth’s 2007 biography), surfaced on the 2006 compilation Personal File, which consisted of 49 unreleased tracks chosen from tapes discovered at the House of Cash studios.
As was the case with this cut, several of the tracks on the two-disc compilation include the singer’s spoken-word memories of the songs and their significance to him. Included in the collection are his versions of tunes by John Prine (“Paradise”) and Rodney Crowell (“Wildwood in the Pines”), as well as the Louvins (“When I Stop Dreaming”), the Carter Family (“The Winding Stream”), songwriter Bill Anderson (the Lefty Frizzell hit “Saginaw, Michigan”), and several written by Cash himself.
“It was such a strong memory for me,” Cash recalls of performing “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.” “I can see me when I was 17 years old standing … at the senior-class graduation. I never forgot that because it was one of my first public singing occasions, and I have sung this song, mainly to myself, ever since I was 17 years old because of those memories.”
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