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2010-12-03 / Range History

CASH plays Eveleth, 1958

By Jason Scorich
HTF Staff Writer

 Singles released by Johnny Cash before February, 1958: (A Side / B Side)

Cry! Cry! Cry! / Hey Porter!
So Doggone Lonesome /
Folsom Prison Blues
I Walk the Line / Get Rhythm
There You Go / Train of Love
Next in Line / Don’t
Make Me Go
Home of the Blues / Give My
Love to Rose
Ballad of a Teenage
Queen / Big River

And one album: Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar (1957)

Several months ago, I received a clipping in the mail from a very kind lady, Mary Ann Vukich. The clipping was a short article from 1959 about Johnny Cash getting pulled over near Cook for speeding. I thought, “Wow, Johnny Cash got pulled over in Cook— that’s worth putting in the history section.” I called Mary Ann to see if she had any more information on Cash, and it turned out that there was a great little story to be told: One year earlier, in 1958, months before moving from Sun to Columbia records, Johnny Cash had played the Eveleth High School Auditorium. Into this land of iron miners, hockey players and immigrants strode the budding Man In Black.

Arriving in Eveleth four years out of the Air Force, and a few days shy of 26, Cash and his Tennessee Two (guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant) had, only a month earlier (January 1, 1958 to be exact) given their first prison concert at San Quentin. In the audience of inmates that night was a 20 year-old delinquent named Merle Haggard, whose life was forever changed by that show.

Early rock and roll, when viewed from a historic perspective, seems to be all about fateful connections, and encounters that, while fleeting, are ultimately meaningful. The most obvious local example of this phenomenon is young Bobby Zimmerman listening to distant southern R & B stations late at night, watching James Dean and Marlon Brando movies at Hibbing’s Lybba theater, and seeing Buddy Holly at the Duluth armory several days before he died. In our world-wide-wired culture, we tend to forget that sense of isolation that those early rock, R & B, and rockabilly fans must have felt on the Range.

All photos and clippings courtesy of Mary Ann Vukich All photos and clippings courtesy of Mary Ann Vukich The first rock records and movies were a glimpse into a world of possibilities, rebellion and raw emotion. R & B and blues records were rare commodities here in those days. Today, by contrast, every kind of information is right at our fingertips, and rebellion has become a relative concept at best. Few people under 60 can understand just how much courage it took for Bobby Zimmerman to assault that piano on the Hibbing High School auditorium stage in 1958. That spectacle was no less strange and exotic in 1958 Hibbing than if a pygmy warrior had stepped out of the pages of a National Geographic magazine and onto that same stage.

Bob Dylan has never publicly mentioned whether he attended the Eveleth concert, but we know that he and Cash later became close friends, meeting at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. The most prominent fruits of this friendship are their duet on Dylan’s song “Girl From the North Country” on his Nashville Skyline album, and Bob’s appearance on Cash’s TV show in the same year, 1969. Actually, the earliest known mention of Cash by Dylan is on a tape recorded by Dylan’s friend John Bucklen in 1958, the same year as the Eveleth concert. On the tape, Bob actually mocks Cash’s singing style, doing his slow, monotone impression of “Big River” and “I Walk the Line,” which he contrasts with his preferred rock singer at that time, Little Richard. According to young Bobby Zimmerman, Cash needed more “expression.” Of course, what Dylan and the rest of us came to realize was that Cash’s stony, John Wayne-like lack of expressiveness was, in fact, his most “expressive” stylistic trait. Mary Ann Vukich’s memories of that concert, though somewhat vague with time, paint a distinctly Iron Range picture.This “range-ness” showed itself most clearly in the fact that, before the concert and at intermission, entertainment was provided by local accordion students from Stella’s accordion studio on Grant St. in Eveleth. Mary Ann was one of the students who played at that concert, and she had the good fortune to meet Cash, get her picture taken with him, and get several autographs. Fifty-two years later, she describes herself and the other students as “highly impressionable,” and remembers Cash as “gorgeous and tall.” “He was the only famous person we’d ever met, and we were totally in awe of him,” she told me. Another of the girls in the newspaper photos is former Virginia mayor Caroline Gentilini, then Carolyn Luoma. She said, “I was a real groupie at that time, but I wasn't particularly a fan of Johnny Cash. It was really just that any celebrity came to town.” Her neighbor was Mesabi Daily News sports reporter Armando Deyoannes. Carolyn told her father she wanted to go to the concert, and “my Dad called ‘Mondo, and he arranged for us to be in the audience and to go backstage. I called my friend Sue Aronen, and my sister Pat [came too].” They met Cash backstage before the concert. According to Gentilini, “It was fun to meet him, but he was not very personable. He seemed bored with the whole thing, meeting us backstage. It seemed like he couldn’t care less.” That said, she notes, “It was a great concert.” As a young married man with a wife and two young girls back in Memphis, it is perhaps understandable why Cash would be less than enthusiastic to be playing in Eveleth in February. And it was, after all, only a year later that Buddy Holly, another young married rocker, would be forced for financial reasons to undertake the treacherous Winter Dance Party Tour throughout the Midwest that culminated at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

One question I asked both Mary Ann and Carolyn was whether liking Johnny Cash was acceptable to their parents or not. Both said that it was. In fact, Vukich’s mother remained a life-long Cash fan and took pride in showing her daughter’s picture from the old newspaper. “But Elvis Presley,” Vukich told me, “was another story.” The reason I asked them this question is that I wanted to know how Cash was thought of on the Range in those days. And, I think what made him “appropriate,” in the minds of parents was the fact that his music was just as much country as it was rock and roll, or rockabilly. It was Cash’s blurring of genre lines that allowed him to cultivate a wide audience. Although his young attitude was often pure alcohol and speedfueled rock and roll rebellion, he also had a strong foundation in gospel and traditional country music that helped balanced his public image. Perhaps it was this very “acceptability” that rebellious young Bobby Zimmerman objected to in 1958, but came to more fully respect and understand in the years to come.

When you look at the captions from the 1958 photos of Cash in Eveleth, the focus of the copy is on the ephemeral “teenie-bopper” side of Cash’s appeal. But I believe that his appearance in Eveleth had a much deeper resonance than that. This concert, like Holly’s concert at the Duluth armory, was manna from heaven for rock-starved young Rangers. Cash’s boom-chuck train rhythms and rock energy were a validation of those unnamable feelings and emotions that welled up inside them. In short: In February 1958, a tough, hardy little seed of rock and roll history was planted in the frozen Range soil.

—Jason Scorich

Did you attend the show? Are you in the photos? Do you have any photos? Do you have any factual information about his run-in with the law in Cook? I’d love to hear your memories of Johnny Cash in Eveleth. Send an email to ironrangehistory@gmail.com, drop us a line at 401 N. 6th Ave., Suite #1111, Virginia, MN 55792, or call us at 741-0106.

One Year Later...

Johnny Cash Finds Cook Wants Safety

COOK—Johnny Cash, popular singing star, whose current popularity is based on a countrywestern song, ''Leave Your Guns at Home, Son,'' was stopped last Monday by Cook marshal Dick Harding while whipping through Cook above the speed limit. The car was driven by Marshall G. Grant. Both Grant and Cash are from Memphis, Tennessee, and were on their way from Duluth to Fort Francis for a show in that Canadian city, marshal Harding said.

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