May 1968 – Johnny Cash Goes to Prison

Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison

The Man in Black’s landmark live album, recorded January 13, 1968, was released 50 years ago this month.  At Folsom Prison signified a number of things for Cash, including the realization of his desire to perform for a Folsom Prison audience, which he first thought of 13 years prior with his recording of Folsom Prison Blues.  Additionally, it was the beginning of a series of prison performances, as well as a return to commercial success after years of battling substance abuse.

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Johnny and soon-to-be wife June Carter arrived in Sacramento on January 10, followed by Carl Perkins, the Statler Bros., and the Tennessee Three.  One of main reasons for the early arrival was so that the group could learn a new song, Greystone Chapel, written by inmate Glen Sherley.  The troupe performed two shows on the 13th, one at 9:40 a.m. and the other at 12:40 p.m., with Cash ending both shows with Sherley’s song.

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Cash, shaking the hand of inmate and songwriter Glen Sherley.

Perkins opened each show with Blue Suede Shoes before the Statlers performed two songs, then Cash took the stage as the inmates – instructed to do so by the MC – withheld their applause until they heard “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash…”  June joined him for a couple of duets, as well as the recitation of a poem while Johnny took a breather.  On the original release, all songs except Give My Love to Rose and I Got Stripes are from the first performance that morning.

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The album performed well in the charts despite relatively little investment by Columbia Records, who was more focused on rock and pop recordings at the time.  The album and its single, Folsom Prison Blues, were climbing the charts when, on June 5, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.  Radio stations immediately ceased playing the single due to the line about shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die” after RFK’s murder, but the song was edited with the line removed – against Johnny’s wishes – and re-released.  Subsequently it became a #1 hit on the country charts, as well as placing in the top 40 in the national charts.  The album itself also reached #1 in the country charts, and #13 on the pop charts.

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To me, At Folsom Prison (as with most of Cash’s recordings) transcends genre.  If I’m in a country music mood, it’s a no-brainer.  But if I’m in rock or folk mode, this record fits right into a playlist along with Neil Young, Dylan, Springsteen, etc., just as Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire does as a non-rock album when put next to them.  It’s gritty, populist, and loud as you want it to be.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Folsom Prison Blues
  2. Dark as the Dungeon
  3. I Still Miss Someone
  4. Cocaine Blues
  5. 25 Minutes to Go
  6. Orange Blossom Special
  7. The Long Black Veil

Side Two:

  1. Send a Picture of Mother
  2. The Wall
  3. Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog
  4. Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart
  5. Jackson (with June Carter)
  6. Give My Love to Rose (with June Carter)
  7. I Got Stripes
  8. Green, Green Grass of Home
  9. Greystone Chapel

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/At_Folsom_Prison

https://www.npr.org/2018/01/12/576763031/johnny-cash-at-folsom-prison-50-years-later

-Stephen

5 thoughts on “May 1968 – Johnny Cash Goes to Prison”

  1. One of the great live albums of all times. I like the San Quentin live album too but it’s not in the same league as this one. I miss Johnny Cash.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was fortunate to see him perform in a small setting back in the mid-90’s during his late career surge. My wife is actually related to him. Her maternal grandfather was his cousin. My wife never got to meet Johnny, though. Apparently her grandfather didn’t get along with that side of the family.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is pretty cool you got to see him. I wish I had- and neat about your wife being related. I love the American Recordings albums.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Coincidentally, I just discussed Johnny Cash with fellow blogger music hotfox63, who BTW has an excellent blog – it’s written in German, so not sure you read it. He posts album reviews almost daily, which recently included “American Recordings.”

    Country certainly is not within my core wheelhouse, but I have to say I’ve always felt there is something very cool about Johnny Cash. Hotfox63 considers him the biggest country star of the 20th century without a doubt, not only because he had more hits than Michael Jackson and sold more records in the U.S. than The Beatles, but more importantly because he was authentic. Hotfox63 also noted Tom Waits once said that nobody changes the radio station when Cash sings.

    While these are bold statements, I actually buy them. “American Recordings” is a gem. I think producer Rick Rubin, who I believe had the vision to record Cash solo with just his guitar, certainly deserves much of the credit. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to the “Folsom Prison” album. And again, I have to say, it’s a really great record. Cool songs and hilarious announcements by Cash make for a very entertaining listening experience.

    I don’t even quite know what it is about Cash, his bass-baritone voice, the story-telling in his songs. I also think you’re right about transcending genres, which definitely increases his appeal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That blog you reference sounds very good. Sadly, I don’t think my one semester of German would help me much (nicht gut!)

      I hadn’t heard that Waits quote before, but it fits. I like reading musician pronouncements like that. Reminds me of Steve Earle speaking about Townes Van Zandt: “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that!”

      Like

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