"I Walk the Line" - Reverse Speech

The version heard in this video is from the movie (1969) soundtrack. In my analysis of the reversal I refer to three versions sung by Johnny. The first is the movie soundtrack version. The second is the one found here, and the third was recorded live at "Town Hall Party" in 1959. I also refer to a version sung by Joaquin Phoenix, found here.

I'd like to share one of my recent research projects for the benefit of those of you who share a sincere interest in learning about reverse speech or speech inversion.

"I Walk the Line" is a song written and performed by Johnny Cash. It was written in 1955 and first recorded in 1956. As I have come to expect, this song follows the trend of having a discernable message in the reversal of every line of lyrical content. My interest in this particular song was first in finding one that had a godly message in the reverseal. I had seen a short video presenting a couple phrases from this song that seemed good, so I took a closer look. It turned out to be a very complex and involving project.

Some people wonder why I would bother fussing over something like this. It's because I want to learn the truth. In such a quest you have to mind the details and carefully explore many facets of the subject.

As I learned in a similar study of The Star Spangled Banner, a message in the inversion may be attributed primarily to the lyrics being sung, but yet, the singer's individual performance can have a significant influence. Since Johhny Cash both wrote and sung this song, any messages found in the reversals are attributable to him. With a number of versions of this song produced over the many years spanning Johnny's career there is a opportunity for learning about the nature of speech inversion in the comparison of one version with another. As it turns out, this song is particularly interesting because the message is a very personal revelation about Johnny that gives possibly unique insight into the depth of this man's soul.

The message in this song is one of a very personal nature, and I offer my own interpretation of what it means in the table below. My interest in going this deep into the song wasn't in getting an inside look at the man in black, Johnny Cash, or to write an analytical biography or psychological profile. As I already stated, I was looking for a song that had a godly message in the reversal. I had no real expectation about the nature of the message going into the study because I had already learned that you just don't know what you're going to find until you look. Taking a "sound bite," like I had heard in the short video I mentioned, just isn't enough of a sampling because you really need more context, and what the message is in the forward lyrics can be completely opposite what's in the reversal. I had no bias about Johhn Cash going into this, and still don't. I generally like his music and respect much of what he did, though he would certainly be considered more of an ordinary Christian who struggles as a sinner with cycles of forgiveness than as a model saint. I want to say that there is no judgement being passed in this.

I listened carefully to three different versions, each sung by the songwriter, Johnny Cash. One of them is used for the video's soundtrack. In addition to those three, I listened to the version sung by Joaquin Phoenix for the movie "Walk the Line" from 2005. There was variations between the versions, but very minor. The version Joaquin sung was actually coser to the common "script" than one of Johnny's own versions.

The meaning of the song

What does it mean, to walk the line? It is to be careful to walk the straight and narrow path, mindful of the consequences for straying from it. In the Bible, in the book of Isaiah, such a line is presented as a rule or standard for measurement of behavior, and therefore the basis for judgment.

I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line; hail will sweep away your refuge, the lie, and water will overflow your hiding place.

Isaiah 28:17 (NIV)

The matter of an individual walking "the line" is presented in Ephesians 5.

See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise,

Ephesians 5:15

In that verse the word "circumspectly" describes this manner of walking presented in the song. It's the Greek word (Strong's g199 - akribos: "exactly, accurately, diligently" The meaning of the English word "circumspect" shows it is a good translation in the greater context of the passage. circumspect: "watchful and discreet; well-considered; Heedful of circumstances and potential consequences; prudent." Someone who is circumspect "habitually examines things on every side in order to weigh and deliberate." (Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary) The lyrics of the song as Johnny Cash wrote them make this interpretation pretty clear.

"Bec'ed out"

I must preface the presentation of the forward and reverse messages by addressing a peculiar word found several times in the reversal. It is the word that sounds like "beak." Given the context of its use, it doesn't match the meaning of any "sound alike" words found in English or other languages. In Dutch, "beek" means "creek," which doesn't make sense in the context. This is not to suggest that the word or expression is meaningless filler. If we let it be defined by the context of its use, the meaning becomes pretty clear, as I think you agree after some consideration. Since the song is all about walking the line, interpreting the word within that context shows it refers to straying off the line, a condition of having strayed.

The occurrences as "beaked out" or "beak out" show similarity to the expression, "bug out." To bug out is to "leave or depart, to quit, usually in a hurry. It sometimes indicates the reason for doing so, as to avoid a responsibility or duty. In this there is harmony with the matter of walking the line, which is done in acceptance of the responsibility, one's duty to walk the line. To stray off the line is to "bug out," right? Consider, too, the expressions; "bailed out," or, "burned out."

Why then "beak" instead of "bug"? I think the answer is found in the primary line of the song lyrics, "Because you're mine, I walk the line." What sounds like "beek" or "beak" seems to be derived from the first word, "Because." It should then be spelled "bec'" as a casual abbreviated reverence to the word, "because." You see, "because" indicates the reason and motivation for walking the line. If he is able to walk the line it is with that focus of attention. If he strays, he's not mindful of the motivating factors, of the "because," of the "bec'." In such a circumstance, he's "bec'ed out." Also, considering this as "bec'" suggests that, in the giving of an account for his behavior, the offering of an excuse for the misstep, as, "I strayed because..." It took me a while to come to this understanding. What is so clearly annunciated in the song's reversals took some effort to grasp. My interpretation of this oft used expression is within the constraints of the context, fitting the forward and reversed message. If you have other insight, I'm interested in giving it consideration, so please, share it with me.

Inverted Speech Forwards Lyric Commentary
Now look aware. Hammer shall hit.(x2)

Now look aware. And the hammer shall hit.
Because you're mine, I walk the line (x2)

Because you're mine, I walk the line
Characteristic of speech inversion, the meaning of the forward is often reflected in the reversal. To "walk the line" you have to "look aware" and be mindful of the potential "hammer hit," which may be seen as the consequence of a misstep.
Soon after, the afterthou[ght] first made me care.

n' asked [of all]/often afore they all say I am bec'ed out

Hey I'm better off sittin' - watchdogs full - but bec' out
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds

I keep my eyes wide open all the time

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
"Afterthought" means "reflection after an act." This relates to the meaning of walking the line. We might ask, soon after what?" The answer probably relates to some turning point in the relationship between Johnny and Vivian. This song was penned the year after they were married. I don't know the precise timing, but Vivian was either pregnant with or had just given birth to their first child, Rosanne, who was born in May, 1955. According to Rosanne, her Dad was in the waiting room when she was born. Knowing how advent of fatherhood effects some men, this may have changed even the manner of his care for his wife.

"Watchdogs" must refer to who/what watches Johnny (including his conscience), keeping tabs on whether he walked the line, or instead, "bec'ed out."

To be "better off sittin" seems to be Johnny's wishful thoughts of an easier alternative to "walking the line," expressing a desire to opt out, if he could. The watchdogs full must be they've gotten an eye full, seen him stumble and stray off the line. The watchdogs, the critics of his walk, apparently agreed he was often "bec'ed out."
Hey I'll look aware. Hammer shall hit.

The day I asked the nurse to ?(d'nousin de vie) to hell and now we owe

Yeah I thank God above I'm still walking with thee

Pass through annoint me just to hear what I agreed
Because you're mine, I walk the line

For you I know I'd even try to turn the tide

You give me cause for love that I can't hide

You've got a way to keep me on your side
I don't know what the expression I hear as "d'nousin de vie" (French? "??? of life"?) is, but I have to think it relates to a private deal Johnny made with the Lord about Vivian, possibly during the birth of Rosanne. Here is the inversion, spilling the beans. Considering the context of the reverse message, and where it occurs in the forwards, this inference is no stretch of the imagination. I suspect Johnny interceded for Vivian, offering himself sacrificially on her behalf as a substitute. Then, Johnny thanks God, who apparently came through with His side of the deal. The deal that was agreed upon appears to be refreshed as the Lord passes through and annoints him at his request.

Version 3 has an interesting variant in the reversal of that last line. "Yeah, sir yeah, I've been bec'ed, it's still what I agreed." It seems to me that, when Johnny recorded that version, he had strayed from walking the line and was "bec'ed out." Apparently, this is his response to the Lord reminding him of their deal.
Hey I'll look aware. Hammer shall hit.

Stars did us, earth moon, bared sin, need ?Baphomet
Because you're mine, I walk the line

And happiness I've known proves that it's right
Here is a curious reversal, with each version offering a slight variation.
Version 2: "Nairfed it as earth moon bare sin need ?Baphomet"

Version 3: "S'nairf's get us earth moon vow send me ?Baphomet"

Version by Joaquin Phoenix: "S'nairf's did us, earth moon, vow sin, me baronette"

"Nairf" is a ruling spirit, a demonic being. The name "Baphomet" I offer is the only word I know of that seems to fit the peculiar pronunciation and the context. The darkness in this verse contrasts the light theme of the verse just addressed above. This is how Johnny's life was. He was up then down, light then dark; he walked the line, he "bec'ed out." See the day/night and dark/light in the forward lyrics of the next two lines.
Nam they is full, nam, ma'am, oh he'd bec' out

Still sayin' the god['s] say, "The answer is sh*t."
I keep you on my mind both day and night

As sure as night is dark and day is light
The word "nam" backwards is "man." Given the earlier expression about "watchdogs full" it seems Johnny is here expressing some frustration. He perceives the watchdog's expectation that he would continue to bec' out. So, he references being bec'ed out. Such a status had apparently been reported. Johnny maybe denied it. They didn't buy it.

The other two versions offer minor variants of the reversal of "As sure as night is dark and day is light."
Version 2: "Now sayin' the god['s] say the answer was sh*t."
Version 3: "Yeah I'm sayin' the god['s] say the answer is sh*t."
Hey, I'll look aware. Hammer shall hit.

We're a fool from Adam; same, 'till our Satan.

First he had seen of Molech - first time out back.

First he was busy, here of, fear of, been out back.
Because you're mine, I walk the line

Yes, I'll admit that I'm a fool for you

I find myself alone when each day is through

I find it very very easy to be true
Version 2-3 agreed on the reversal of "Yes, I'll admit that I'm a fool for you." Version 1 (the one you hear in the video) is this variant: "Oh you're a fool from Adam - ?stem ?fill our Satan" Notice how the word "fool" appears both forward and backward in the same line. The nature of man includes a tendancy towards foolishness, as inherited from Adam and encouraged by Satan.

Since Moloch is the god to whom children were offered by their parents as a sacrifice, the reference here supports the suggestion this message might relate to when Vivian was giving birth to Rosanne. It also might relate to some deal Johnny may have made as suggested earlier. One definition of "Moloch" is figurative. A "Moloch" is anything conceived of as requiring appalling sacrifice. Johnny was known to struggle with strong emotional issues, and redemption was a strong theme in his music and life. He knew darkness, struggling with guilt over the circumstances of his brother Jack's accidental death. And, he also knew his God, and forgiveness. I suspect the reference made to Moloch is figurative, expressing Johnny's perspective that the Lord drove a hard bargain in the deal.

The fearful reminders help him be true and walk the line.

The Joaquin Phoenix version sounds like: "First he was busy, here of, beer have, been housed up."
Now look aware. Hammer shall hit.

Soon after they asked her, thou first made me care

I'm asked often afore they all say I'm bec' out

Now I'm better off sittin', washed out soul, but bec' out
Because you're mine I walk the line

I keep the ends out for the tie that binds

I keep my eyes wide open all the time

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
This last verse is a reprise of the first verse, so the forward lyrics are the same. The speech inversion is similar, but not identical.

Version 2 alternate: "'n after the after thou[ght] first made me care"

Version 2 alternate: "I'm asked "how long afore they all say I'm bec' out"

The difference in the last line is really interesting. Instead of "watchdogs full" he says, "washed out soul." Being mindful of what's actually said as well as the context, it seems this refers to the state of his soul as "washed out," meaning "tired," rather than in any sense of being cleaned. This is understandable, since the constant vigilance appears to have worn heaviliy on him. Relief from that weariness must have been sought in the "bec'ed out" seasons.

Johnny had his struggles, with drugs and alcohol, and with enduring emotional issues. In particular, he struggled with feelings about his personal responsibility in his brother Jack's accident and subsequent death.

"Cash was very close to his brother Jack, who was two years older. In 1944, Jack was pulled into a whirling table saw in the mill where he worked, and cut almost in two. He suffered for over a week before he died. Cash often spoke of the horrible guilt he felt over this incident. According to Cash: The Autobiography, his father was away that morning, but he and his mother, and Jack himself, all had premonitions or a sense of foreboding about that day, causing his mother to urge Jack to skip work and go fishing with his brother. Jack insisted on working, as the family needed the money. On his deathbed, Jack said he had visions of heaven and angels. Decades later, Cash spoke of looking forward to meeting his brother in heaven. He wrote that he had seen his brother many times in his dreams, and that Jack always looked two years older than whatever age Cash himself was at that moment." Wikipedia

This song is of some significance in our day due to its popularity and influence. In 2003, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked the song at #30 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The tune of the song has an interesting story behind it that becomes more so given the nature of this study!

"Johnny Cash's first number -one Hit ( I Walk The Line ) in a sense was written backward. One night while he was stationed in Germany, Johnny then in the Air Force, discovered that his buddies had borrowed his reel-to-reel tape recorder. When he turned it on, he heard a haunting, organ-like sound. In Truth, it was guitar runs recorded with a tape running one direction and played back in the other. When he got back in the States, Johnny married and found success with ( Cry, Cry, Cry ) and ( Hey Porter ) but he never forgot that melody. In a Gladewater, Texas, dressing room he was sharing with tour partner Carl Perkins, Johnny played his backward tune. "What are you doing there sounds like a hit to me," Carl said. Johnny, with the Temptations outside his door and a new wife at home, wanted the lyrics to say, "Iím going to be true to those who believe in me and depend on me to myself and God. Something like Iím still being true, or Iím 'Walking The Line.' "The lyrics came as fast as I could write," says Johnny. "In 20 minutes, I had it finished." He recorded the song for Sun Records in 1956. But producer Sam Phillips pleading, he also recorded a faster version. When Johnny heard it, he begged Sam not to release any more copies. I thought it was horrible, he says. Country Fanís loved it. The Song topped Billboards country charts for six weeks and peaked at number 17 on pop charts" (from a "google cached" version of "Once Upon a Tune" - www.stevenmenke.com)

Johhny heard the original tune played backwards and liked it better that way. What became his first big hit song was a reversal! So, the tune you hear accompanying the reversal video I made is actually heard the way it was first recorded, being twice reversed!

The lyrics of this enduring song bring forth a message so many people have identified with. I suspect it has influenced more than a few with encouragement towards faithfulness in their marital relationships. Johhny's testimony of how the lyrics were written shows it came, as most would say, by inspiration. Through that inspiration, Johhny's life was imprinted into that song, in the reversal that provides an open window into Johnny Cash.

Our knowledge of reversed speech and an honest and diligent application of it is not without reward. The effort put into this project has given me a better understanding of this remarkable phenomonen.