Johnny Cash: ‘The Man in Black’ and his battle with Parkinson’s disease

Johnny Cash, the American singer/songwriter with a larger-than-life voice was a pioneer of  rock and roll in the 1950s. While his five-decade career defined American music,  Johnny Cash was defined by the “Man in Black” persona – his life and his songs were linked by the themes of death, love and God. He wrote over a thousand songs and released dozens of albums. He was the best-known musician to have suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Cash announced he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease at a Flint, Michigan concert in the year 1997.

Cash refused to be drawn behind by the disease. He tried his best to remain active throughout his illness. He was initially diagnosed with Shy-Drager Syndrome, a type of Parkinson’s disease. Shy-Drager syndrome, which often resembles Parkinson’s disease, is a rare neurological disorder which causes progressive failure of the nervous system, including a part that controls key body functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, and bowel and bladder control. It can cause tremors, impaired speech and blackouts. That his illness would get the better of him was inevitable. His illness made him appear much older than his years: he was red-faced, had white hair, his skin was wrinkled and his jaw was misshapen from all the surgery he had endured over the years.

Cash fought his disease with great resilience. A subsequent diagnosis found him to have autonomic neuropathy, which left him susceptible to bronchitis and pneumonia. Still he continued to work, and participated in more recording projects. Despite the multiple visits to the hospital, he recorded dozens of songs and remained defiantly prolific. There were days when Cash was incapable of producing a vocal sound of sufficient quality, and sessions had to be cancelled or postponed.

His voice had deteriorated since the previous album and no amount of engineering wizardry could disguise the loss of his once so famous voice. Cash didn’t give up and completed his album. Despite his poor health, he spoke of looking forward to the day when he could walk again and toss his wheelchair into the river near his home.

He never allowed himself to be dictated by the disease. Cash said that he denies he has any disease. He wanted to forget about the disease and considered himself as a man of strength and power.

Cash refuses to allow his soul to be confined by a body that was betraying him. He traditionally started his concerts with the introduction “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”. Upon his death, Cash was revered by the greatest popular musicians of his time and the one who fought his disease with full courage and zeal.  His album, ‘American V’, was released after his death. According to reports, there is enough material of Johnny Cash to release another album posthumously, namely in 2009, called ‘American VI’.

Celebrities who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease include Muhammad Ali, Pope John Paul II and Michael J. Fox

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