Vivian and Johnny Cash leave court after his arraignment for drug trafficking

OPINION: How Country Music Erased Johnny Cash’s Racially Ambiguous First Wife

Film History OPINION REVIEW Video

My Darling Vivian about the life of Vivian Liberto,the first wife of legendary country singer Johnny Cash, not only charts Liberto’s life with Cash but starkly illustrates the fickleness of “love”, the power of ambition, and how the invisible hand of white supremacy often determines how culture evolves.


The documentary, directed by Matt Riddlehoover, recently screened at the  Bentonville Film Festival, founded by actress Geena Davis. The fest not only showcased a plethora of high quality storytelling but it did so with a legitimately diverse slate of  filmmakers.


Riddlehoover is the son-in-law of Kathy Cash, one of Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto’s four daughters. He likely didn’t set out to make a feminist film, but My Darling Vivian ends up being just that.


All of the commentary in My Darling Vivian is by women; Vivian’s daughters, Roseanne, Kathy, Tara, and Cindy center and restore voice to their mother,  a woman whose existence was erased from history. The film is told from their perspectives and supplanted by family photos and video from the time Cash married Vivian to approximately 1961. Though they were still legally married until 1967, Cash had by then checked out of the marriage, having gotten involved with fellow country singer, the double divorcee June Carter by that point.


Many people only learned that Johnny Cash even had a first wife with the release of the 2005 biopic Walk The Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Vivian was played by Ginnifer Goodwin. Even fewer know that there was some confusion as to whether or not Vivian’s race was white or Black. Vivian’s racial ambiguity, or to be more exact, the possibility that she had Black blood, was likely the reason she was erased from history and is another illustration of how culture and white supremacy are subtly linked. Culture is quite often manipulated for the convenience of white supremacy.


Cash first spied Vivian on a steamy summer evening in 1951 when he was enjoying some time off at a San Antonio, Texas roller rink, not far from Brooks Air Force Base where he was in training camp. The legendary country singer was immediately smitten at the sight of the lanky seventeen year-old with the movie star looks. Determined to meet and win her over, the nineteen year-old Cash ended up walking Vivian to her door at the end of that fateful evening.


Though she tended to be shy and reserved, Liberto was a veritable “city girl” to Cash’s “country boy”. Cash hailed from Dyess Arkansas, a rural community created under The New Deal and administered by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. 


The love struck pair had time to carve”Johnny loves Vivian” on a local park bench that summer, but didn’t have time for much else. Cash left for an assignment as a radio interceptor in Landesburg, Germany just weeks after meeting Vivian. Their courtship consisted of trading hundreds of passionate love letters over the next three years.


It isn’t explicitly stated, but implied, in My Darling Vivian, that Vivian revealed some of her insecurities in those letters, and they had to do with the fact that although she was white as far as she knew, people sometimes took her for Black because of some of her features, and her color. Cash, the film shows us, reassured Vivian that there was nothing about herself about which she should feel insecure.


The “one drop rule”, where any provable indigenous African DNA at all, meant that one was Black, is a construct of the shapers of a global capitalist system that depended on a racial hierarchy with Blacks and Indigenous Americans at the bottom. The one-drop rule is most particularly reinforced in the United States, whereas there are complex systems to accommodate the numerous variations of racial mixing in other countries such as Brazil and South Africa.


The film mentions that Liberto’s family was from Sicily, only 1800 miles from Africa. It’s absolutely within the realm of possibility that the family carried significant (most humans carry at least a hint of African DNA since  all non-Africans descend from a small population that left Africa roughly 60,000 years ago) indigenous African DNA and some of it was expressed in Liberto’s features. She simply didn’t personally identify as a Black woman. Perhaps because her family wasn’t American, she wasn’t forced to, the way a woman with American parents would have been.


Vivian certainly shouldn’t have had to feel insecure, but in mid twentieth century America, she had every right to be anxious. Blacks were restricted in the neighborhoods in which they could live and often denied mortgages. They were restricted in the quality of education they could receive, they couldn’t vote, and the types of jobs they could get and how much they would be paid was limited to the lowest; all could have a significant impact on quality of life and the legacy Blacks were able to leave their children. Not to mention that with no laws protecting them as citizens, Black women were often subject to sexual assault and coercion. Black men and women were lynched.


Further, a number of Italians had been lynched in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, no doubt in part because of their perceived proximity to Blackness”.


So it was indeed a serious situation that confronted Vivian if people earnestly categorized her as a Black woman.


After a three year stint in Germany as a radio intercept operator, Cash returned to Texas in July 1954 and married Vivian a month later on August 7th. Many of the photos in My Darling Vivian attest to how passionately in love the young couple was.


However, Cash’s love wasn’t very deep, and the honeymoon was short lived. Cash’s star rose quickly. He had his first hit less than a year after the wedding, with Cry, Cry, Cry. His first number one hit, I Walk The Line, came in 1956. In Cash: An Autobiography, he states he wrote it when he was on the road in Texas, “having a hard time resisting the temptation to be unfaithful to my wife back in Memphis.”


So Johnny Cash fairly quickly realized that he wasn’t in love with Vivian. It’s also very possible that although he personally never saw Vivian as Black initially, other people who met her may have raised questions, even in jest. For someone as ambitious and frankly, selfish, as Cash Vivian was a liability in the world in which he felt he belonged. While being a rabble rouser and an adulterer wouldn’t hurt him, having a wife some might perceive as Black in the deliberately and decidedly white world of country music, created an easy target should anyone decide that they wanted to make his professional life difficult for him. He had even less reason to try and keep this marriage together.


The country music world is considered a white one and steps are actively taken to keep it so. Automaker Henry Ford invested millions into country music and- most importantly- the social interactions that sprang up around it, because he felt threatened by Jazz and the types of social interactions that happened in that world. Ford paid for square dancing classes to be taught on the campus of his factory as well as in colleges across the US. Ford also pioneered the “Early American Dance Music” half-hour radio program. A well-known radical anti-Semite, it isn’t hard to believe that Ford would also be racist as well. His sentiments, and strategies for dealing with them, never died.


Recently, “Old Town Road” by Black music artist Lil Nas X, occupied the Billboard Hot 100 Country charts in the top twenty, and was summarily removed just as it was about to reach number one. The only reason it was even able to hit the country charts is because individual country music DJs on their own, ripped it from social media and played it. The reason then given for its removal from the country charts was that it didn’t “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” The experts- country DJs- perceived it as a country song. The powers that be, however, simply attempted to erase Lil Nas X from the country music narrative.


None other than Beyonce herself was similarly erased when she released “Daddy Lessons” from her Lemonade album a few years ago. The Texas native’s ode to paternal wisdom, wasn’t played on country radio, and was disqualified from Grammy consideration as a country music song. Her performance of the song accompanied by The Dixie Chicks, at the 2016 Country Music Association Awards was missing from a number of social media platforms by the Country Music Association (though they asserted it was because the clips were “unapproved’).


Beyonce and Lil Nas’ forays into country music weren’t the first by singers whose body of work traversed music genres.


In 1974 Australian pop artist Olivia Newton-John’s “If You Love Me Let Me Know” charted on the country music charts. She also beat country legends Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton for CMA Award for Female Vocalist of the Year and was nominated for Entertainer of the Year, Album of the Year, and Single of the Year. Ultimately, the petite blonde singer/actress had ten songs that made the country charts in the seventies. Not only was she not from the South as Beyonce is, she wasn’t even American. She was, however, white.


On another level, these examples are instructive in how working class and ethnic whites are also kept in line, and coerced into going against their own personal preferences, instincts, and best interests. People like the DJs who played Lil Nas X, or the person who decided it would be interesting to have Beyonce and The Dixie Chicks to perform together, will surely at least think twice the next time they have similar notions.


Cash was not only taking drugs, he was caught and arrested for smuggling drugs across the Texas/Mexico border in the summer of 1966. Though he went long stretches without seeing Vivian, he found time to be with her when he was in trouble. Vivian attended the arraignment with him in December. As the troubled couple descended the stairs leaving the arraignment, the press took their picture. Vivian’s features appeared relatively dark in the photo and a KKK adjacent group pounced, reporting in its newspaper that Cash had married a “negress” and had “mongrel” children.


Cash’s records were boycotted and threats were made against him and his family. In an October 1966 article, Variety described Cash as “the innocent victim of a targeted hate campaign in the south.” Most significantly, the article stated that in the South, “there is no greater crime than miscegenation.”

Cash’s team made him issue a statement where he declared that Vivian was white. Her family produced documentation showing their family was from Sicily and therefore, in the ignorance of that era, could not be Black. 


With two quick hits under his belt and an ineffable appeal to audiences, Cash at this time had a lot of potential value to the record industry. It makes sense that they put full effort into making sure that the problem wasn’t allowed to snowball. The whole saga was over relatively quickly and his reputation and record sales weren’t significantly impacted.


It must have made an impression on Cash however, as well as his handlers. The perception at all that Vivian was Black was something even from the point of view of convenience that they would want to avoid at all costs. Cash could have simply said “So what if she is?” to accusations that she was Black. But he wasn’t in any way in love with Vivian in 1966. He wasn’t going to risk his career to make a statement for Vivian’s benefit, and he wasn’t personally moved enough to do so out of his own principles either. His illicit romance with June Carter, from a beloved country music family whose similarly itinerant life fit with his penchant for roaming, also offered a readymade, extremely appealing alternative. Not to mention that the “love story” narrative was marketing gold.


Whether he set out to do so or not, part of his image and allure for many of his fans was as a symbol of Christian white American superiority. It was even bandied about at one point thatCash’s image should be added to Mt. Rushmore. A man like him would only and could only choose a pure white woman as his wife. Having a wife who was in any way Black, as Vivian was seen to be, would sully that narrative. The choice was silently made to pretend that she did not exist. 


The wish to erase Vivian was so strong that June often referred to Cash’s daughters with Vivian as her own; saying she had seven children though the girls lived with Vivian. My Darling Vivian makes clear that Vivian was deeply wounded by Carter’s remarks. She was joking but if one didn’t know better- as many didn’t- you could easily believe they were all in fact, her children. She never mentioned or acknowledged Vivian, or a first wife at all. This attitude extended even into Cash’s death.

Johnny Cash’s second wife, June Carter Cash


At a memorial concert for Cash after his death in 2003, Vivian was among the attendees and she was recorded on video in the audience. Her son-in-law performed and verbally acknowledged Vivian before he began singing. All of that footage was edited out of the version that aired. Even after his death (and with money to still be made from his work, reputation, and likeness) the industry would not acknowledge Vivian- not because she was technically Black even- but because the allegation could be legitimately made that she was so. Such is the power of white supremacy’s invisible hand.


 A woman who just before her death gave all the letters Cash had ever written her to her daughters, My Darling Vivian, through their recollections, shows us how much the erasure devastated Vivian. At the time of her death in 2005, Vivian still had the roller skates she wore on the night she met Johnny Cash some fifty years prior.


It’s inconceivable that a Black woman, or one perceived as such, would be able to jokingly say she parented four children birthed and being raised by a white woman; a woman whose home she had, by all accounts, wrecked. Carter got away with this and died in old age as the heroine of one of America’s great love stories. My Darling Vivian shines a light on how little power Vivian had as someone who threatened white supremacy and how very much power culture has to advance it.


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