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