Performing inside Folsom Prison was an appropriate choice for the outlaw country musician known as “The Man in Black.”
On Jan. 13, 1968, Johnny Cash, considered by many one of the 20th century’s most influential musicians, performed two shows inside California’s Folsom Prison. It was an appropriate choice for a performer known as a bit of an outlaw, with a penchant for dark clothing that earned him the nickname “The Man in Black.” The performances and resulting album, At Folsom Prison, helped revitalize Cash’s previously lagging career. “That’s where things really got started for me again,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in a 1973 article.
But Cash, who died in September 2003 at 71, wasn’t just seeking personal gain when he decided to play behind bars. He also was thinking of those for whom he was performing. Cash, a Christian, believed in redemption and argued prisoners could be rehabilitated. He also saw himself in the eyes of these men behind bars.
“He had an affinity for the common man, the downtrodden, the people who lived on the margins,” said Michael Streissguth, author of Johnny Cash: the Biography. “To quote Merle Haggard, ‘Wealthy men don’t go to prison in this country.’ Cash knew that. He realized he could have easily been in prison himself.”
To mark the anniversary of those historic performances, Streissguth spoke to Legacy.com about these concerts, Cash’s work to improve prison conditions and how one of the best-known moments on the Folsom album was actually a bit of in-studio chicanery. Streissguth, an associate professor in the communication and film studies department at New York’s Le Moyne College, is also the author of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and a producer of the documentary of the same name.
Johnny Cash began playing inside prisons in the 1950s and performed more than 30 concerts for incarcerated men over the next decade. Why did Cash want to perform for these captive audiences?
“I think there are a number of reasons. A big one is he was the kind of person who felt he had a Christian duty to help other people. He saw that playing for prisoners brought something to their lives, a glimmer of light, a glimmer of hope. He was moved by that and continued to do that for most of his career. He also learned, after playing in a prison the first time in the mid-1950s, that the prison audience was electric. They responded to him. They were enthusiastic. And he was welcomed. When it came time to record an album, he knew that marrying his big hit, ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ with a prison audience was a recipe for success. He knew it would be very entertaining, although those around him didn’t think it would have a successful outcome.”
How did the moneymen around him – specifically, Columbia Records – feel about these concerts? What was the state of Cash’s career at this point?
“For a year or two leading up to Folsom, Cash hadn’t had a big country-pop crossover hit. No ‘Ring of Fire.’ No ‘Walk the Line.’ He’d really become damaged goods on the concert circuit because he was a no-show so many times or he was late or he was high onstage. His career was really in decline at that point.
“In the movie Walk the Line, there’s a scene in which the Cash character walks in with a scowl and says he’s going to play Folsom. It didn’t happen like that. Columbia Records was run by accountants and lawyers with middle-class sensibilities. They thought any whiff of prison around the recording would be ignored by radio. It also seemed too close to Cash’s very public arrest for amphetamine possession a couple of years before. In ’67 and ’68, he wasn’t going into the studio very often. His drug abuse prevented that, and the label needed something. They needed material. On top of that, I’ve seen letters from him pleading with the record company to let him do this. When the label finally green-lighted the project, there was opposition, but the combination of commercial considerations and Cash’s determination made it happen.
“Also important: Bob Johnston, Bob Dylan’s producer, took over the Nashville office of Columbia Records in 1968. Johnston was a rebel who enjoyed bucking the establishment, and he was in the right place to green-light this. He produced the album.”
“Folsom Prison Blues” was a hit for Cash in 1956, years before he performed inside the penitentiary. What made him choose Folsom as the song’s focus?
“In the early ’50s, when Cash was in the Air Force in Germany, he saw this B flick, Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. That inspired him to whip up a song. He’d been writing poems and songs since he was a child. The interesting thing with this song is that Cash borrowed from a couple of sources. One was Jimmie Rodgers and one of his ‘Blue Yodel’ songs. The other was a song called ‘Crescent City Blues’ by a bandleader named Gordon Jenkins, who is probably best known for conducting and arranging for Frank Sinatra. Cash lifted a number of lines verbatim from this song as well as the tune to come up with ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ Cash dusted off this song after he was signed to Sun Records and recorded it in 1955. It was his first big hit.”
Talk about the live album At Folsom Prison. What did you learn when you listened to the original recordings while researching your book?
“Most people forgot or never knew that Cash did two shows at Folsom Prison in 1968. I never knew. I assumed it was one show. One show was a backup in case the recording went wrong the first time around.
“You never imagine a performing artist taking the stage in the morning, but these concerts were done in the morning. By the second show, Cash is clearly drained. His heart is no less in it, but his energy has flagged to some extent so the album is mostly drawn from that first concert. Only a few songs from the second show made the album. One of the songs that didn’t come to light until the deluxe edition came out a couple of years ago was ‘I Just Came to Get My Baby out of Jail,’ an old song from the mists of country music history. Cash knew he was going into a prison, but he just couldn’t get it right when he attempted it, so it didn’t make the initial release. But it’s a lovely moment that illustrates Cash’s love for the country music canon. He was amazing in his knowledge of the breadth of folk music and country and it was amazing he could pull this out.
“Of course, the biggest revelation in terms of post-production was the additions of the joyful hoots and hollers after you hear Cash sing, ‘I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.’ You hear this and you think these are truly violent men who would celebrate that line. I always just assumed that’s who these men were.
“I was listening to the raw tape and listening to the song, and after hearing that line I heard no audience reaction. I said to the engineer, ‘Did you hear the men cheering?’ He didn’t, so he rewound and there was still no noise. … It had been dubbed in. That just floored me.
“It was nice as a writer to reveal this, but I think a lot of people were disappointed to hear that was a bit of studio drama to jack up the album. Most people will say they didn’t know it had been done. It’s such a part of the DNA of that album.”
How did this album affect Cash’s career? Were there any negative reactions?
“The general concern that it would tarnish his career or the reputation of the label turned out to be misplaced. Cash’s career just skyrocketed. … Taking this to the rock audience was a good idea. The rock audience crowned this album, and the country audience came along for the ride, too. He followed it with At San Quentin, which was twice as popular, but Folsom got it started. After that, he’s in films, he gets his own television show, he goes from playing firemen’s carnivals to Madison Square Garden. I consider it as one of the most important albums of the 1960s, as do many others.”
Did Cash actually influence any real prison reforms?
“In the wake of this, Cash … would speak out against prison conditions in this country on his TV show. … He went to Capitol Hill and lobbied a Senate subcommittee. He went to the White House and lobbied (President) Richard Nixon. He brought attention to the cause, probably more attention than it’s had before or since.”
In the early 1970s, Cash lobbied for the release of two California prison inmates. One of those men went on to live a trouble-free life, dying a few years ago. The other, singer-songwriter Glen Sherley, struggled on the outside, even with Cash’s support. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978. How did this affect Cash?
“I think he was disappointed, but there was a positive there. He could say, ‘My efforts helped get a man out of prison who never went back.’ I think Cash promulgated the idea that we need to be more compassionate to the men and women behind bars. That’s part of his legacy.”
When do you think Cash is at his best?
“He was always at his most powerful when he was interpreting the rural experience and life of the common man. He spoke from experience. He grew up in rural poverty in Arkansas. He knew what it was to pick cotton. He knew what it was like to drive a truck, and he briefly worked in the auto industry in Michigan. Two songs I love are ‘Pickin’ Time,’ a song that just outlines the rhythms of rural life and rural work. The other song I love is ‘Five Feet High and Rising,’ about the Mississippi River basin flood of 1937, which he lived through. When he’s drawing on the common man’s experience, it’s him at his most awesome.”
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”