In fifth grade my mother finally let me go to the Concord Music store and buy a “45” single. I bought Johnny Cash’s version of “Ring of Fire” written by his future wife June Carter and Merle Kilgore, a noted country songwriter of his day. There was no doubt in my mind back in 1966 what was the best song ever written. I pretty much feel the same way now.
“Ring of Fire” is about as simple and perfect as a song gets. It uses three simple chords, two verses, and two choruses, yet it is a profoundly moving and enduring testament to the power, mystery, and allure of falling, failing, and floundering in love. Only an absolute misanthrope would fail to sense the power of this song.
As you try to write your own songs, it is worth looking at and listening to and reflecting upon:
Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bound by wild desire
I fell in to a ring of fire
I fell in to 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
The taste of love is sweet
When hearts like our’s meet
I fell for you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild
The verses are two rhymed couplets of between 6-8 syllables per line. The song starts with a statement: “Love is a burning thing” and likens that love to a physical ring into which the author, “bound by wild desire” is drawn towards—come what may. I often wondered why the unknown character did not leap or jump, but rather “fell” into the burning ring. Perhaps it symbolizes the inescapable nature of wild, untamed and unthinking love, or perhaps it is just a play on the phrase falling in love. However you take it, it works.
The chorus musically rises in a crescendo—much like the flames that grow “higher and higher” as the protagonist falls deeper and deeper in love. It employs the time-honored technique of parallelism and tri-colon usage with its repetition of “down, down, down” with “burns, burns, burns” and employs only a single rhyme scheme with “fire” and “higher.” This love affair totally consumes the main character as it drags him or her inexorably deeper into the burning pain and complexity of love. I don’t always know whether to sing the couplet phrases of “ring of fire” as a warning, a lament, or an ecstatic vision.
The second and final verse totally shifts the tone of the song into something more akin to a narrative reflection—a reflection wizened by experience telling us only that the “The taste of love is sweet/ when hearts like ours meet.” The final couplet of the song describes the predicament of love as laconically spoken as any phrase in literature: “I fell for you like a child” followed by the problem of love: “Oh, but the love went wild.”
Did it grow wild and kill the love or is love a wild part of our nature that cannot be tamed or controlled? Is that love lost when the fire runs its course? “Ring of Fire’ does not tell us much more. We fill the gaps with our own tanglings with love. Is that enough?
I’ve been singing this song for over forty years, and I still don’t know the answer, but I can agree and know from experience how easy it is for the love to go wild.