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How A Mistake With The Tape Recorder Gave Johnny Cash His Biggest Hit

In Cash: The Autobiography, Johnny Cash said that he purchased a reel-to-reel recorder “with savings from the eighty-five dollars a month Uncle Sam paid me to fight the Cold War.” A mistake actually caused his song to be the classic we all know now.

I was on the eleven-to-seven shift in the radio intercept room one night, listening in on the Russians, and when I got back to the barracks in the morning I discovered that someone had been messing with my tape machine. I put on a Barbarians tape to test it, and out came the strangest sound, a haunting drone full of weird chord changes. To me it seemed like some sort of spooky church music, and at the end there was what sounded like somebody saying “Father.” I played it a million times, trying to figure it out, and even asked some Catholics in my unit if they recognized it from one of their services (they didn’t), but finally I solved the puzzle: the tape had gotten turned around somehow, and I was hearing Barbarian guitar chords played backward. The drone and those weird chord changes stayed with me and surfaced in the melody of “I Walk the Line.”

A mistake isn’t a mistake until your next move.