The Meaning of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”

Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is one of the most popular and universally beloved country songs of all time. Many listeners can recognize the tune as soon as they hear the mariachi horns in the opening seconds, and know they can soon expect to hear Mr. Cash’s iconic “Love — is a burning thing.”

Released as a single in 1963, the song was the namesake for his 16th album, Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash, released later that same year. By 1964 it had become the biggest hit of his career.

Most sources, including the official songwriting credit, say that “Ring of Fire” was written by Johnny’s then-girlfriend, later wife, June Carter, in collaboration with Merle Kilgore. The first recording of the song was released by June’s sister, Anita Carter, for her 1963 album Folk Songs Old and New.

Cash liked the song, and he claimed that after hearing Anita’s version he had a dream where the song was accompanied by “Mexican horns.” He told Anita, “‘ll give you about five or six more months, and if you don’t hit with it, I’m gonna record it the way I feel it.”

Of course, Anita’s version, though wonderful in its own right, failed to become the chart-topping hit that Cash eventually had with it. He released his version with the horns, and a legendary song was born.

The most common belief about the meaning of “Ring of Fire”, and the one that the Cash family themselves adhere to, is that it’s a song about the transformative power of love. June wrote the song with Merle while her and Johnny were in the early stages of falling in love.

As you may know, Johnny & June would go on to marry and live out the rest of their days together, both passing away in 2003 within four months of each other.

However, Cash was already married at the time the song was written, to his first wife, Vivian.

In her 2007 memoir, I Walked The Line, Vivian shares some details about the origins of “Ring of Fire” that add a very interesting layer to discussions about the song’s meaning.

It’s also worth noting that these details have been disputed:

One day in early 1963, while gardening in the yard, Johnny told me about a song he had just written with Merle Kilgore and Curly while out fishing on Lake Casitas. ‘I’m gonna give June half credit on a song I just wrote,’ Johnny said. ‘It’s called “Ring of Fire.”‘ ‘Why?’ I asked, wiping dirt from my hands. The mere mention of her name annoyed me. I was sick of hearing about her. ‘She needs the money,’ he said, avoiding my stare. ‘And I feel sorry for her.’

To this day, it confounds me to hear the elaborate details June told of writing that song for Johnny. She didn’t write that song any more than I did. The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part. All those years of her claiming she wrote it herself, and she probably never knew what the song was really about.

Vivan Cash on “Ring of Fire”.

One can only assume that this female body part that Cash was referencing is the one that makes babies, but calling it a “Ring of Fire” is quite strange. Unless you consider that the song’s title could be a reference to the burning sensation that accompanies a visit from the venereal disease known as Gonorrhea.

With Cash’s reputation as a wild man during his rise to fame, it is not hard to picture him up late at night, on a bender, writing a song about an STD.

Lyrically, though, aside from a few lines that could go either way, the song seems much more likely to be about the perils and joys of falling into a deep and intense love affair.

Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics, starting with the first verse:

Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bound by wild desire
I fell into a ring of fire

First verse to “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash.

The famous opening verse draws a comparison between love and a “Ring of Fire”, suggesting that the barriers of the ring are formed by passionate desires. Cash then reveals that he fell into this ring, and now he’s really in trouble.

On the other hand, going with the possible dirty meaning, Cash could be singing about how his earthly desires led him into a more physical kind of love, and now he’s paying for it with the fiery rings of venereal disease.

Next up, we have the chorus:

I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down
And the flames went higher
And it burns, burns, burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire

Chorus to “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash.

Here, the lyrics simply depict the downward spiral into this new and exciting love affair. The deeper he goes, the bigger and hotter the flames become, but still, he continues onward.

Others suggest that the meaning here has to do with cunnilingus, and the flames represent the flames of passion as the lover approaches climax.

The chorus is repeated twice, with an instrumental break in between, and then Cash sings the second verse:

The taste of love is sweet
When hearts like ours meet
I fell for you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild

Second verse to “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash.

The second verse lends itself to the more wholesome interpretation of the song, and would be difficult to draw any kind of reference to the female body in it. Cash simply describes the fated meeting of two lovers, coming together beautifully as if it were destiny.

These lovers then fall into the “Ring of Fire” together, with an innocent, childlike abandon. The emotions take control, and the passion between them is so strong that it burns out of control, like a wildfire.

The rest of the song chugs along, with two more repetitions of the chorus before slowly fading out.

Listen to Anita Carter’s original recording “(Love’s) Ring of Fire” below, and Johnny Cash’s famous version below that. Read on to find out about some of the most popular “Ring of Fire” covers.

“Ring of Fire” Covers

Being such a popular song, “Ring of Fire” has amassed quite a few cover versions over the years from artists of many different genres. Some of them are quite popular.

We’ve gathered some of the most popular and best-sounding “Ring of Fire” covers from the past half-century and listed them out below, in order of the year that they were released.

Not counting Johnny Cash’s version, we personally like Ray Charles’ take on the song best. Which one do you prefer?

Eric Burdon & The Animals (1968)

Ray Charles (1970)

Olivia Newton-John (1970)

Blondie (1980)

Brian Eno (1990)

Social Distortion (1990)

Frank Zappa (1991)

Bob Dylan (1996)

This Kid Named Miles (2003)

Dragonforce (2014)

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