“This show is being recorded for an album release on Columbia Records and you can’t say hell or shit or anything like that. How does that grab you Bob?”~Johnny Cash, January 10, 1968
Fifty years ago today, Johnny Cash recorded one of the most influential albums in modern music history at Folsom State Prison.
It had been a decade and a half since he’d written Folsom Prison Blues and though he hadn’t much experience with incarceration, the song captured the experience and prisoners wrote to him, asking him to perform there.
Though this was his first prison recording, it was not the first time he’d performed in one. Long an advocate for the power of redemption, he’d been visiting and performing in prisons for years. In one early concert at San Quentin, a young Merle Haggard sat in the audience, enraptured. The experience was pivotal to Haggard’s own music career — when he mentioned it on Cash’s TV show years later, the network got letters from viewers, upset that they’d featured a convict. It seemed the concept of redemption hadn’t reached everyone.
Cash’s own life had featured little time behind bars, though as he was to relate in his 1969 concert at San Quentin, he had spent a night in jail in Starkville, Mississippi. He once told Haggard, “you’re everything that people think I am.”
Both of those concert albums continue to sell, in various versions, having each gone triple platinum. But the impact goes beyond sales.
From the first moment on stage, it is clear that Cash had the live audience in the palm of his hands. He was on their side and they knew it.
If they didn’t, Cash was willing to send them a few not-so-subtle messages. He taunted the guards when they were slow bringing him a glass of water. When his microphone developed a loose screw, he called out to the staff, “Can somebody come screw this microphone?” He referenced his guitar case “where I keep all my dope.”
Of course, the main reason the concert was possible was that Cash was finally off the dope. But he knew how to play the audience and he knew the experience of addiction, which he clearly demonstrated in “Cocaine Blues.”
During the San Quentin concert, Cash performed two songs that hadn’t been heard before. One was the Shel Silverstein-penned “A Boy Named Sue,” which he’d previously been unsure of, but would become a monster hit. Another was his song “San Quentin,” in which he derided the entire prison experience, declaring to the facility–and to massive cheers–that “you did no good.” The audience clamored so loudly, he was forced to repeat the song.
He wasn’t above using juvenile humor to reach his audience, including the songs “Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog” and “Flushed from the Bathroom of your Heart.”
Perhaps the best example of this was a song that wasn’t released on the original album version of the concert. “Joe Bean” is about a young man imprisoned and about to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit and applying for a pardon from the governor on his birthday. It turns out however that, as his mother well knows, he’s committed just about every other possible crime and the reason she knows of his innocence is that he was robbing a train at the time. The governor does call, but not to prevent his execution; he simply wished Joe Bean a happy birthday on his way to the gallows.
Most artists wouldn’t have attempted such macabre humor, especially in front of prisoners. Cash knew his audience and they loved it, and him for it.
Singing with June Carter, whom he later married, he flirted. “I like to watch you talk,” he teased. She shot right back, “I’m talkin’ with my mouth. It’s way up here.”
The power of redemption fills the album, as it did Cash’s life. Without the slightest sense of irony, he switched from potty humor and drug references to gospel songs. He ended the Folsom concert with “Green Green Grass of Home” and “Greystone Chapel,” a song written by a Folsom prisoner. At San Quentin, he prefaces “Folsom Prison Blues” with “Peace in the Valley” and later (only on some editions of the concert recording) three additional gospel songs.
He didn’t just understand his audience; he knew the power of his connection to them. With a single word, he probably could have started a riot. Instead, he turned them toward faith and redemption.
Cash would go on to record other prison albums and both before and since, he created some of the most iconic work in music history. But none were as valuable.
**A version of this piece will also appear in the Porterville Recorder on January 10th, 2018.
Photo: Getty Images