Behind the Song Lyrics: “Ragged Old Flag” by Johnny Cash

It’s 1974 in Binghamton, New York, and Johnny Cash is consumed by the upheaval of the Watergate scandal and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Just two years earlier, Cash had met Nixon. Finding himself in the Blue Room of the White House, Cash had supported Nixon’s candidacy, yet questioned his policies, and had a few things to share with the then-president.

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Initially invited by Nixon to talk about prison reform and give an impromptu concert. Nixon had mentioned some favorite songs like Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac,” but Cash had his own messages for the president, which he presented in song.

“I don’t know those songs, but I got a few of my own I can play for you,” said Cash before performing his anti-Vietnam War song “What is Truth?” and the socially conscious “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and “Man in Black.”

Following Nixon’s resignation, Cash continued the storyline of the presidential saga and began writing an homage to the country, and the flag, on “Ragged Old Flag,” the title track off his 1974 album. 

“Ragged Old Flag” follows the story of an old man in a town square, recalling what the country and flag have endured throughout time. 

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 flagpole has leaned a little bit
And that’s a ragged old flag you got hanging on it

Johnny Cash, Feb 22, 1968 (Photo: Courtesy of the Johnny R. Cash Trust)

Wanting to “reaffirm faith in the country and the goodness of the American people” in a country tune, “Ragged Old Flag” quickly became a popular song and a staple on Cash’s setlist at the time. Performing the song live, Cash would often open with the following:

I thank God for all the freedom we have in this country, I cherish them and treasure them – even the right to burn the flag. We also got the right to bear arms, and if you burn my flag, I’ll shoot you.

Featured alongside Ragged Old Flag tracks like “Don’t Go Near the Water,” “While I’ve Got It on My Mind,” “King of the Hill,” ”Lonesome to the Bone,” “Pie in the Sky,” and “I’m a Worried Man,” co-written with wife June Carter Cash, the song remains Cash’s ode to America and the flag.

Today, “Ragged Old Flag” is still relevant and is often played on Veteran’s Day, the 4th of July, and to honor the armed forces. 

So we raise her up every morning
We take her down 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

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