“Forty Shades of Green” at 60
By Christine Kinealy, Contributor
October / November 2019
The iconic song about Ireland, written by country music legend Johnny Cash in 1969, is still popular today.
When Cash visited Ireland in 1959, he was already a successful country musician, his hits including “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” He came to Ireland, though, as a tourist. He later explained his inspiration for writing the song as, “I was in a car with a road map of Ireland in my lap, rhyming the names – the names in Ireland just beg to be sung, anyway. To
get the title, I guess I just looked out of the window, and there they were, the Forty Shades of Green.”
I close my eyes and picture the emerald of the sea
From the fishing boats at Dingle to the shores of Dunardee
I miss the River Shannon and the folks at
The moorlands and the midlands with their forty shades of green
But most of all I miss a girl in Tipperary town
And most of all I miss her lips as soft as
Again I want to see and do the things we’ve done and seen
Where the breeze is sweet as Shalimar and there’s forty shades of green
I wish that I could spend an hour at Dublin’s churching surf
I’d love to watch the farmers drain the bogs and spade the turf
To see again the thatching of the straw the women glean
I’d walk from Cork to Larne to see the forty shades of green…
Which county, you might ask, is Shalimar in? Cash admitted that this was not a name on his road map, but the perfume that he purchased for his wife, Vivian, on the same day – and he liked the sound of it. A further legacy of Cash’s visit was that he encountered a terrible storm, which forced him to take shelter in a barn near Tara in County Meath. He named his fourth
daughter, who was born in 1961, Tara. Although “Forty Shades of Green” was written in 1959, it was not released as a single until 1961, and then only as a B side. However, the song was a hit in Ireland that year, when recorded by Maisie McDaniel, “Ireland’s Queen of Song.” Sligo-born Maisie, who was a household name in the 1960s, was part of the showband scene that flourished in Ireland during that period.
In October 1963, Cash undertook his first tour of Ireland. Earlier that year, he had released what was to be one of his biggest-ever hit singles, “Ring of Fire,” so he arrived in Ireland with superstar status. By the time of his appearance in the country, he had sold nearly ten million “discs,” and before leaving America, Cash had played to capacity audiences in Carnegie Hall in New York and in the 10,000-seater Hollywood Bowl. Not everybody in Ireland, however, was impressed with the country star; the music critic in the Dublin Evening Herald writing, “Jimmy Rodgers I like. Tennessee Ernie, I like. But Cash, for some reason, does not register with me.”
Cash was accompanied by his band, The Tennessee Three, and by June Carter. Carter, who would marry Cash in 1968, was described in the Irish media as “America’s Glamorous Country and Western Queen.” The publicity referred to Cash as the “World’s Number One Country and Western Singer” whose records included “his fantastic Irish hit, ‘Forty Shades of Green.’” None of his other records were mentioned.
It proved to be an intense schedule, Cash and his band performing 17 shows in 14 locations over an 11-day period. Their final concert was in the National Stadium in Dublin, but most venues were small and part of the showband circuit. They included the Granada Ballroom in Kingscourt, County Cavan, (which marked the commencement of the tour), the Carlton inKilkenny, the Adelphi in Dundalk, the Jetland Ballroom in Limerick, the Majestic Ballroom in Mallow, the Lakeland Ballroom in Mullingar, and the Palladium Dancehall in Rush, near Skerries. The advertisement for the show in the Dreamland Ballroom in Athy pointed out that it was a venue “where only the best bands play,” helpfully adding that, for those attending, “Bus as usual from Carlow at 9:00 pm.”
Upon arriving in Ireland, Cash had appealed to amateur writers to send their songs to him. He explained that his contract required him to record 32 songs every year, some as singles, some for albums – consequently, he was always looking for new material. In response, Cash received 350 songs and he promised to review and return them all.
Cash was not the only notable visitor to Ireland in 1963. In June of that year, President John F. Kennedy had undertaken an emotional journey to the land of his ancestors, they having left Wexford during the Great Hunger. As his plane landed, President Kennedy looked out the window and said: “I see Johnny Cash’s Forty Shades of Green.” Cash later commented, “That was a big moment in my life and my career, to know that that song had reached out that far.”
During his long career, Cash visited Ireland on many other occasions, always performing “Forty Shades of Green” to delighted audiences. The song was also included in two of Cash’s greatest songs compilations. Cash’s relationship with Ireland continued in other ways. In 1993, he was the lead singer on “The Wanderer,” a track on U2’s studio album, Zooropa. Cash and Bono also recorded a duet of “One,” and Bono planned to write a song called “Ellis Island” for Cash to record, but the project was not completed.
Cash died in September 2003, only a few months after his beloved June had passed away. He was aged 71. The world mourned the loss of “the man in black,” and poignantly, as was pointed out in one Irish newspaper, his death “has left the dispossessed of America without their most
Born in Arkansas in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Cash understood poverty, dispossession, and despair – he battled with drug addiction for most of his adult life – all of which positioned him well to take on the mantle of being “the man of the people,” and to capture their suffering in his powerful lyrics:
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
(“Man in Black,” 1971)
Johnny Cash, however, was a man of many parts, and his “Forty Shades of Green” was a tender tribute to a country that he loved and, as he admitted, “has a special place in my heart.” ♦
Click below to hear Johnny Cash perform.