The Man in Black goes to jail – 50 years on

Johnny Cash performs at Folsom State Prison in 1968.

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

Those words ring out like a verbal lightning bolt — and the thunder follows, in the form of raucous applause from the packed audience of prisoners at Folsom State Prison in California.

In 1968, two historic concerts were held inside the walls of the notorious California prison. Johnny Cash, June Carter, Carl Perkins, the Tennessee Three and the Statler Brothers performed — and changed the course of US music history.

Out of those two shows, the album At Folsom Prison would emerge. Fifty years later, it stands as one of the great live albums in music history, one of the most enduring works of Cash's storied career — and a testament to the power of music to connect us with threads of common humanity, even in the most inhumane of places.

Cash felt a deep respect and affinity for those behind bars and was dedicated to making life better for those serving time.

By 1968, he had been performing concerts in prisons for more than a decade, having put on more than 30 shows at various facilities across the country. About his first prison concert at Texas’ Huntsville State Prison in 1957 — an unheard-of event for a major recording artist — Cash explain: “By doing a prison concert, we were letting inmates know that somewhere out there in the free world was somebody who cared for them as human beings.”

Contrary to popular belief, Cash himself was never behind bars for longer than a single night, nor even accused of a serious crime.

Cash would later say, explaining the popularity of his famous song “Folsom Prison Blues”: “I think prison songs are popular because most of us are living in one little kind of prison or another, and whether we know it or not, the words of a song about someone who is actually in a prison speak for a lot of us who might appear not to be, but really are.”

Cash tried many times to get record executives to let him record one of his prison shows, always to be shot down.

He believed such an album would be a hit, but record executives thought there wouldn’t be a market for it. But as Cash said: “I thought people would take notice of men that have been forgotten in everybody’s mind. It would be good for them to hear the men’s reactions.”

But by this time, Cash was far from a sure bet. His drug problem had led to a string of self-destructive incidents, which led to his banning from the famous country music stage concert the Grand Old Opry in 1965 after he kicked out the stage footlights. The same year, he was arrested for smuggling pills from Mexico and starting a forest fire.

Cash’s musical success was also waning. His songs still did well on the country charts, but he hadn’t had a crossover hit since “Ring of Fire” in 1963.

In the end, it took the upheavals of the 1960s — societal, political and cultural — to get the Folsom album made.

By 1968, a growing prison reform movement had developed. It was inspired by the strength of other political and social movements, and spurred on by high-profile prison scandals, including at the Tucker Prison Farm in Arkansas, Cash's home state, where investigations revealed a lack of food, 14-hour workdays, systematic rape and the torture of inmates.

All of this was leading to conversations about the role of prisons and their impact on inmates and broader society.

Musically, the growth of the folk music scene and the popularity of artists like Bob Dylan — who Cash greatly admired and defended against critics — showed there was a mass audience for, and money to be made from, music with a social conscience.

Bob Johnston, who had produced some of Dylan’s music, took over as head of A&R at Columbia Records and immediately agreed — to the horror of the higher-ups — to make a live album from Cash’s prison shows.

It’s hard to overstate just how bad Folsom was — a maximum security prison, with all of the worst aspects that entailed: younger prisoners were routinely raped by older ones; there were racial gangs; and drug abuse was rampant.

And the guards were vicious. If a fight broke out in the prison yard, guards would fire one warning shot, followed by blowing a whistle. If the prisoners didn’t freeze or hit the ground, guards would begin firing at them.

As Cash and his crew made their way into the prison for the taping, he was told by the warden to remember that it was official prison policy not to deal with hostage takers. If something happened to any of the performers, they would be on their own.

The album that emerged is one of the best US records ever made and quickly shot to number one.

Part of the genius of it lies in the way it’s structured --bookended by “Folsom Prison Blues” at the beginning and a song called “Greystone Chapel” at the end.

“Folsom Prison Blues” combines two of Cash’s favourite song topics — prisons and trains. The train is the key to the song — it represents freedom and movement, leaving the prisoners behind.

Luther Perkins’ iconic guitar riff is contrasted on the downbeat with a locomotive rhythm that gives listeners the sense there’s movement happening just out of reach, beyond the prison walls, making it a song that’s simultaneously about being trapped and being free.

The irony -- that Cash was using this theme at a concert partly designed to help lift prisoners out of their surroundings for a day -- is reinforced by the announcements heard periodically over the loudspeakers throughout the album. Freedom in prison is an illusion.

As Michael Streissguth notes in Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece, for the prisoners in the audience that day: “It was their song, about their wretched home. When Cash dove to the low notes, he plunged into solitary, the security housing unit, grazing against the sharp metal and jagged granite on the way down.

“When he said that ‘time kept dragging on’ those who felt the clumsy passage of the hours whistled their understanding. The song was Cash’s pronouncement of allegiance to the men…”

Throughout the concerts, Cash showed a keen understanding of his audience, striking a balance between songs that spoke in bittersweet ways of imprisonment, both deserved and unjust, good-natured humour and stories of grace and redemption.

The recording reveals how two days of long rehearsals took a toll on Cash’s voice, which is worn through in spots, allowing him to joke about needing water — and just what kind of water is available in prison.

The brilliant ending to the album is Cash's recording of “Greystone Chapel”, a song written by inmate Glen Sherley, who was serving time at Folsom for armed robbery. Sherley had managed to make a tape recording of himself singing the song and get it to Cash, who worked to learn the song before the show.

On its own, “Greystone Chapel” is not a great song, but the context of this album turns it into something greater. Where “Folsom Prison Blues” is about physical confinement and the yearning for freedom, “Greystone” is about the idea of freedom in spite of physical confinement.

Cash continued to perform prison concerts through the late seventies — including a concert at San Quentin, which became its own album in 1969. He would also use the Folsom album and his subsequent work in prisons to push for prison reform.

In July 1972, Cash testified in Congress about some of the horror stories he had heard while giving concerts in prison. He also offered ideas for reform that included a focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment; and counselling for prisoners to help them readjust to life outside of prison.

While not radical demands, they are a far cry from what exists today in many cases, even 50 years later.

Cash later said: “I just don’t think prisons do any good. They put ’em in there and just make them worse, if they were ever bad in the first place. Nothing good ever came out of a prison…

“I really was interested in some kind of prison reform, but I don't think that’s the answer. The answer is out on the street. Jobs. Opportunities. Racial prejudice is another thing that's wrong, and a reason for the crime and the drugs, too.”

In other words, crime is not an individual problem, but one caused by the conditions of society -- despair, poverty, alienation.

That’s the enduring legacy of Johnny Cash. He recognised the common humanity of those men behind bars and, through his music, offered them something they needed -- a “flower of light in a field of darkness” -- even if only for a few hours.

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

Become a Green Left supporter today and get the first month free!

Green Left aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. We rely on regular support and donations from readers like you.

Any reader who becomes a $5, $10 or $20 per month supporter between August 3 and 11 will get the first month free.