Perhaps one of the most iconic performances of the classic spiritual song came from Johnny Cash and the Carter family when they came together in 1960 to sing “Were You There?” during a television appearance. In a video posted to YouTube, a haggard Johnny Cash strums his guitar and sings as The Carter Family, dressed in vibrant matching blue, sings backup vocals.
Johnny Cash & The Carter Family: Helen, Mother Maybelle, Johnny, Anita & Lorrie Carter
Cash, who became a Christian at age 12, struggled with his faith over the course of his life, but never abandoned it. Even at the lowest points of his career and his personal life, he continued to sing gospel songs. But, one day Johnny Cash reached his breaking point and he decided to end his life.
It was early October 1967 when Johnny Cash made his way to NickaJack Cave on the Tennessee River just north of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“I never wanted to see another dawn,” Cash said. “I had wasted my life. I had drifted so far away from God and every stabilizing force in my life that I felt there was no hope for me.”
Cash entered the cave and wandered for nearly three hours, hoping that he would become so lost that he couldn’t find his way out and would eventually die there. Eventually, Cash laid down in the cave waiting for death to come. Instead he found peace.
“I thought I’d left Him, but He hadn’t left me,” Cash recalled the moment that peace overcame him. “There in Nickajack Cave I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny. I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God’s time, not mine. I hadn’t prayed over my decision to seek death in the cave, but that hadn’t stopped God from intervening.”
The revelation gave Johnny a newfound sense of purpose. In total darkness, he began to feel his way through the tunnels of the cave. He crawled slowly and with purpose until he felt a slight breeze that indicated a way out. When he emerged from the cave he found his mother and June Carter there with food and drink. They told Cash that they felt led to come find him.
During the drive back to Nashville, Johnny told his mother and June that God had saved him from killing himself. He also promised to do whatever it took to get sober. A year later, he and June married and their story became one of the most coveted and talked about love stories in country music history.
Johnny’s incredible story of faith and overcoming struggles makes the video below all the more powerful as it was filmed when he was at one of the lowest points of his life. The song tells the story of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and was thought to have been first printed in the late 1800s. It has been covered by numerous artists including Ricky Skaggs and Harry Belafonte, but it is Johnny Cash and the Carter Family’s rendition that remains a faithful favorite.
Watch Johnny Cash and the Carter Family sing “Were You There?” in the video below.