Country Throwback: Johnny Cash Performs ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ at 1986 Concert

by Suzanne Halliburton

Johnny Cash wasn’t even the biggest name on the marquee of a Fourth of July concert almost 35 years ago.

Nope. Cash was part of a huge celebration that culminated in a massive fireworks display, which, at the time, was the largest the world has ever seen. Because when the guest of honor is the Statue of Liberty, you spare no expense.

Here’s Johnny Cash performance. He sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was a moving rendition with a superb patriotic backdrop. Check it out and stick with us on the other side. We’ll tell you who all was there, why they were there and about the first time Johnny Cash performed the patriotic song on a big stage.

It’s 1986 and It’s Liberty Weekend, Complete with Johnny Cash

Back in July 1986, New York celebrated the Lady Liberty herself. In 1984, the best-known statue in the United States started undergoing a refurbishment. She’d been in the United States for 99 years. The renovation took two years to finish. And once workers put the finishing touches on the statue, organizers planned a big party with lots of entertainment. Johnny Cash was only part of the party.

The celebration kicked off on July 3. French President François Mitterrand was on hand. France gave the States the statue. President Ronald Reagan spoke at the ceremony and officially unveiled Lady Liberty.

Other celebrities spoke, including Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor gave remarks. Frank Sinatra sang “The House I Live in.” Warren Burger, who was chief justice of the Supreme Court, swore in immigrants during a ceremony.

There was more entertainment the next evening. The Boston Pops Orchestra accompanied Johnny Cash for the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Check out the other performers — John Denver, Whitney Houston and Barry Manilow. Now, here’s some of the people in the audience — Steven Spielberg, Henry Kissinger, Itzhak Perlman, Cardinal O’Connor, Alan Shepard and Coretta Scott King.

Then Reagan gave another address aboard the USS John F. Kennedy. A 30-minute fireworks show followed. It was the largest ever seen in the world. There were 22,000 fireworks launched from 30 barges. Just wow.

Cash First Performed Battle Hymn Almost 20 Years Before

As you could see, Johnny Cash gave a heartfelt rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. He first performed the song on a big stage in 1969 for his variety show.

The episode was Sept. 27, 1969. And the Battle Hymn served as the finale. Like that Fourth of July evening in 1986, Johnny Cash wasn’t alone on the stage. The Carter Family, The Statler Brothers and The Tennessee Three joined Johnny Cash for the patriotic song. The song first appeared in written form in The Atlantic in 1862. It quickly became a rallying song during the Civil War.

As the song began on his show, Johnny Cash stood alone on a darkened stage. He introduced the song, saying:

“A song can belong to all of us,” he said. “You don’t have to be a rich man to have a beautiful thing like music.”