A fine article about Johnny Cash’s live gig at Folsom prison from Popmatters.
When Johnny Cash walked into the gloomy Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968, he had no idea how it would change his life or the course of popular music—he would put the 40-acre property on the map and the penitentiary would return the favor for him.
His path there was long and difficult but also inevitable. Cash’s early career at Sun Records in the mid-’50s represented a watershed in country music, featuring his booming baritone and chugging guitar, along with Marshall Grant’s bass and Luther Perkins’ brilliantly understated guitar—an amazingly rich tapestry made from very few ingredients. As such, his music was also as compelling a statement of mid-20th century American minimalist music as La Monte Young’s “Trio for Strings” or James Brown’s “Please Please Please”. “Folsom Prison Blues”, one of Cash’s Sun hits, was a mash-up torn from a violent prison B-movie and a lounge song by Gordon Jenkins (“Crescent City Blues”). It would have a long-term impact on his career that even Cash couldn’t have forseen.
Like his label-mate Elvis Presley, Cash bolted to a larger label in the late ‘50s to reap the benefits of his rising star. While he was able to turn out hits at Columbia, he was also in the grip of an amphetamine addiction (as dramatized in the recent biopic Walk the Line). His band members recall that he had a self-destructive streak and could be impossible to be around when he was stoned. His miscreant ways landed him in jail a few times but they were one-night stands and not ‘hard time’ per se—this was something that he would be very ambivalent about for a long time to come.
By the mid-’60s, countrypolitan music was the craze in Nashville, mixing in pop sounds and minting money for artists like Jim Reeves and Eddie Arnold. Cash himself had been taking a different, more ambitious path, releasing concept albums about the American West and the Indian a few years before rock bands came up with the same idea. He’d soon conceive of the ultimate concept album and an audacious idea that would propel his career.
Even more remarkable is that he came up with the idea at a crossroads in his life. By early 1968, Cash was fighting off his addiction with help from singer, collaborator, and love interest June Carter, daughter of country music royalty the Carter Family. Meanwhile, his live show had changed dramatically, reflecting the arc of his career. Even early on with the Tennessee Two (Grant & Perkins), Cash made his live shows (as seen on Town Hall Party DVD) memorable events. He was clearly having fun, acting cocky and playing to the crowd all at once, full of smiles, gestures, and asides, occasionally lifting up and aiming his guitar like a rifle during instrumental breaks. In the late ‘50s, he’d landed spots on Ed Sullivan’s and Jackie Gleason’s hit TV shows, giving him even more exposure.
By the ‘60s, however, his concerts had turned into full-blown reviews. Along with the Tennessee Two, he had a drummer plus a rock legend in tow (Luther’s brother Carl Perkins) and soon-to-be-stars the Statler Brothers, both employed as warm-up acts and backing for Cash’s own show. Even June’s mother, country legend Maybelle Carter, would join the show, too, alongside daughters Helen and Anita, both of whom had their own solo careers.
It only made sense to capture a Cash show for release, but live albums weren’t a staple of the country music industry at the time. Live albums were just becoming a trend in rock in the late ‘60s, with psychedelic groups showing off their lengthy improvisational chops (e.g. the Grateful Dead); previously, they offered little more than bands trying in vein to recreate their hits in front of screaming fans. It wouldn’t be until the ‘70s that the live album would become a given for any rock act. But back in the mid-’60s, the only popular genre that was able to exploit this well was jazz, with historic recordings by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and others.
A pair of classic pre-psychedelic live albums were instructive about how the medium could be best exploited. James Brown’s 1962 record Live at the Apollo was funded by Brown’s own money when his own label balked at the hit-maker’s idea. It turned out to be a surprise hit, featuring a screaming match between JB and the audience on “Lost Someone”. Similarly, on B.B. King’s now-classic 1964 recording Live at the Regal, the guitarist stroked the crowd well. On “How Blue Can You Get?” his woman disses his car, dinner, and house before he comes to the climax/punchline: “I gave you seven children and now you wanna give ‘em back!” he roars and the crowd screams back at him in a moment of intensity that’s impossible to imagine inside a studio. Cash would follow the same path with his first live album and find that similar resistance that Brown encountered.
Other than the progressive idea of a live country album, Cash had an even grander, riskier agenda in mind. In 1956, he played a show with the Tennessee Two at a prison rodeo. In some ways, the show was a disaster—a thunderstorm broke out. Cash remembered that the rain got worse and worse, but a funny thing happened: the crowd responded more to Cash than to the weather. He was soon asked to play at San Quentin where he impressed a young inmate named Merle Haggard to follow a similar path into country music. Cash himself was so impressed by the receptions that he played several more prison shows including one at Folsom Prison in 1966. Contrast that with the previous year where in a fit of rage, he smashed the floor lights at country music Mecca the Grand Ole Opry, resulting in a long-standing ban.
Even before he planned for a live album, Cash already booked an early ‘68 show at Folsom Prison, the second-oldest penal institution in California, set up to accommodate the spill-off and dregs from San Quentin prison. Cash’s decision to choose Folsom as a setting for his live album is worth mulling over. “The song ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ brought me to Folsom Prison but there I saw the real human face of the people there,” he would say later. If Cash wanted to make a symbolic gesture and support of prisoners, he could have just brought some reporters (which he did anyway) but he was determined to make this a fully documented event as well. For Cash, this wasn’t just a dependable, receptive audience. Photographer Jim Marshall, who took the iconic cover photo of Cash’s sweat-drenched face, said that he understood Cash’s motivation: “He believed that he was just making the public more aware of the conditions in the prison… He saw himself as an entertainer who could make a difference in their lives, even for an hour.” John Carter Cash (who co-produced the recent Folsom box set) had a similar take on his father’s motivation: “He knew that he was singing for murderers, rapists, and killers but he also knew that he was singing for people that were suffering greater hardships than they were due.”