SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: The Man in Black wasn’t chasing rainbows with this classic song.


This week’s inquiry is a tad convoluted, and it begins with the Johnny Cash song, from the 1971 album of the same name: Man in Black.

As I observed recently on Facebook, I had this album in the year of its release, at the tender age of 11. In trying to recall how and why, I concluded it must have been a gift from my father, with the lyrical content of the song serving to explain why he was a Johnny Cash fan in spite of listening to little in the way of “country” music.

Looking back to where the nation stood in 1971, and considering the typical context of country music at the time, Cash’s protest song stuns. It cannot be pegged right or left, and stands as a statement of independent (and individual) conscience. I liked the song then, and still do.

My friend Allan commented.

Wondering about his lyrics about wearing the “rainbow”. When did the recent meaning appear?

Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black

This fascinating blog post at Oxford Dictionaries dissects the word “rainbow.”

 … The word rainbow has long been used as a modifier to signify a wide range of related and typically colourful things, and as human civilization has progressed, the rainbow has come to be associated with a similar theme: that of diversity, inclusion, and acceptance. In fact, the most common collocates of rainbow in the Oxford English Corpus (leaving animal names such as trout, runner, and lorikeet aside) are flag, coalition, and nation. The rainbow flag has a long history of being used by many ethnic groups, political parties, and religious movements over the centuries, but since the late 1970s has been most often associated with the LGBT movement, where it stands for diversity and gay pride. A rainbow coalition can refer to either the established American movement for social change, or any political alliance of several different groups, while rainbow nation is a term attributed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe South Africa’s racial and ethnic diversity.

Rainbow Coalition” was a term used by Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton in 1968, and subsequently borrowed by Jesse Jackson around 1971, when Cash’s song was written and recorded. The Rainbow flag as symbol of the LGBT movement debuted in 1978.

I don’t have a clear conclusion as to Cash’s use of the term in this song, which protests inequality and supports diversity and inclusion. Occam’s Razor suggests that the simplest answer is best: He’ll continue to wear black as opposed to bright rainbow-colored clothing precisely as a form of protest against injustice.

Interestingly, Cash later had an album by the name of Rainbow (1985), and a song on it called “Here Comes That Rainbow Again.” Watch the video of Cash on David Letterman’s show singing his new single, and wait for a surprise at the end.