The Man in Black’s Tribute to the Ragged Old Flag
Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office
Not in black, but decked out in a red, white, and blue jacket, singer Johnny Cash headlined the Flag Day celebration in 1977, the 200th anniversary of the congressional resolution authorizing the stars and stripes of the nation’s flag.
On June 14, 1977, the Man in Black strode into the House Chamber as if it were the Grand Ole Opry. But music legend Johnny Cash wasn't about to belt out tunes for any ordinary concert. Rather, Cash delivered a moving poem to celebrate the bicentennial of the U.S. flag.
Cash, accompanied by wife, June Carter Cash, and their young son, took his place in front of the Speaker of House Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, who was already seated at the rostrum. Nearby, the U.S. Army band stood waiting to perform and the All-City Chorus, a group of Boston public school students, shuffled nervously. The House had recessed but scores of Members and guests filled the seats.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Photography Collection
About this object
Flag Day celebrations were for decades a treasured tradition in the House, which stood in recess during the commemoration, so that non-Members like singer Johnny Cash could appear in the chamber.
The All-City Chorus served as the opening act, belting out “Let’s Build a Nation” and “A Nation’s Prayer Hymn.” A color guard presented the flag to Speaker O’Neill and the House Members. The House proceeded to honor the flag and paid tribute to the 288 living Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.
Representative Robin Beard of Tennessee nudged the festivities along by introducing Cash. “His deep feelings about his country and its history as symbolized by our flag, have been immortalized in his sensitive poem, ‘This Ragged Old Flag,’” Beard noted.
With this introduction, the country crooner took to the microphone and thanked those in attendance. He told the crowded House Chamber about his concerns for the “bad news coming out of Washington every day,” and how he was inspired by watching “kids running up and down,” the aisles of a movie theater. That moment became the inspiration for his poem about the flag, which he proceeded to read:
I walked through a county courthouse square
On a park bench an old man was sitting there
I said, “Your old courthouse is kinda run down.”
He said, “Naw, it’ll do for our little town.”
I said, “Your old flag pole is leaned a little bit,”
And that’s a ragged old flag you got hanging on it.”
He said, “Have a seat.” And I sat down. . . .
The old man relates to the narrator that the flag had flown through numerous wars and crises, concluding,
And she’s getting threadbare and she’s wearing thin
But she’s in good shape for the shape she is in
Cause she’s been through the fire before
And I believe she can take a whole lot more
So we raise her up every morning
Bring her down slow every night
We don’t let her touch the ground and we fold her up right.
On second thought, . . . I do like to brag.
Cause I’m mighty proud of that ragged Old Flag.
The ceremony concluded with a presentation of a flag flown over the Capitol to Cash, and rousing renditions of “America the Beautiful” and the “National Emblem” by the All-City Chorus and U.S. Army Band. The Man in Black then left the House Chamber without singing a single note.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 95th Cong., 1st sess. (14 June 1977); Flag Day Program, 1977, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Poem text from Ragged Old Flag by Johnny Cash, as printed in the Congressional Record, House, 95th Cong., 1st sess. (14 June 1977).