Johnny Cash's Folsom at Forty

Culture Watch

Mr. Bane is a professor of history at Blinn College.

In a year of landmark musical statements (think, for example, of the Beatles’ White Album, the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and the Stones’ Beggars Banquet), Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison stands proud. Recorded on January 13, 1968, and released four months later, the album featured such unforgettable Cash tracks as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Jackson,” “I Got Stripes,” “Orange Blossom Special,” “Cocaine Blues,” and “Greystone Chapel,” a religious number written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley. Performing on a small stage in front of 2,000 enthusiastic California convicts, Cash was at the top of his game, ably supported by June Carter, the Statler Brothers, Carl Perkins, and the Tennessee Three (Luther Perkins, Marshall Grant, and Fluke Holland). Recalling this historic concert, Cash observed, “I gave them a stiff shot of realism, singing about the things they talked about, the outside, shooting, trials, families, escaping, girlfriends, and coming to the end. They knew it was for them.”

Cash championed society’s underdogs, the disenfranchised and downtrodden. He sincerely cared for the struggling, hard working laborer, the dispossessed Native American, and the lonely, forgotten inmate. Cash, who had himself “stewed in jail a few nights after alcohol and pill binges,” felt particular solidarity with those confined behind bars. As early as 1957, the singer, hoping to provide the incarcerated “a little relief,” played prison shows, initially visiting penitentiaries in Texas and California. By appearing in prisons, Cash declared, he was “letting inmates know that somewhere out there in the free world was somebody who cared for them as human beings.” He also preached a bold message of penal reform. Cash genuinely believed “that with human compassion many prisoners could find redemption. If all men were promised redemption by God—from drugs, from recklessness, from any sin—that meant prisoners too.”

When he recorded At Folsom in early 1968, Cash was at a low point in his career. He “had skidded into a long, flat dry spell.” Cash’s “manic appetite” for amphetamines led to erratic behavior. The performer began to miss concerts or botch those he attended. On stage, spells “of giggling beset him. He slurred his lyrics. He forgot the words. A 1962 performance at Carnegie Hall…crashed horribly.” By late 1967, Cash started to pull out of this devastating drug addiction. Still, Marshall Grant, the star’s bass player, figured that Cash was “only about 75 percent straight” the day of the Folsom concert. Moreover, Cash struggled commercially; he had not topped the charts since mid-1964. This was indeed a “fallow period” for him. But the massive success of AtFolsom would change Cash’s course, reinvigorating his stalled career.

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, which eventually sold millions of copies over the years and is still in print in 2008, enjoyed both critical acclaim and brisk sales on its release. Peaking at # 13 on the pop album charts, it reached the top spot on the country charts. Today, it is regarded as a Cash tour de force. “The critical applause that At Folsom garnered in the late 1960s never really died. Journalists and historians in the years between now and then have continued to stand up and clap, lifting ever-higher the album’s vaunted legacy.” In June 1968, Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn asserted that the disc presented Cash “at his dynamic best.” That same month, Village Voice writer Richard Goldstein declared that “Cash’s voice is as thick and gritty as ever, but filled with the kind of emotionalism you seldom find in rock…His songs are simple and sentimental, his message clear…The feeling of hopelessness—even amid the cheers and whistles—is overwhelming. You come away drained, as the record fades out to the sound of men booing their warden, and a guard’s gentle, but deadly warning, ‘Easy now.’ Talk about magical mystery tours.” Cash, Time chimed in later that summer, “lean and tough looking at 36, sings with granite conviction and mordant wit about sadness, pain, loneliness, and hard luck.” And in a piece thirty-one years later, Seth Mnookin contended that singing “in front of cons—a captive audience if there ever was one—was clearly something Cash cherished, and something he did often and remarkably well. He did it nearly perfectly on At Folsom Prison, one of the most powerfully visceral albums recorded, period. Americans bought the record in droves. When it was first released, in 1968, the Beatles, the Stones and the Beach Boys were all at their most psychedelic. Yet Cash turned a stark album of straight-ahead country rock into a bestseller…While the Beatles were singing about the love you make, Cash was earning cheers in Folsom by describing the impulsive, coked-up slaughter of his girlfriend on ‘Cocaine Blues.’ ”

That so many people live as prisoners (whether shackled by guilt, grief, addiction, or something else) helps explain the appeal of At Folsom. “I think prison songs are popular,” Cash professed, “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.”

Forty years on, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison sounds as edgy and urgent as it did in 1968. Compelling and vital, it is a genuine classic. Thanks, Johnny.

NOTE: Michael Streissguth, a professor at Le Moyne College, has written the best history of this eminent album, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece (Da Capo Press, 2004). All quotes in this essay are taken from Streissguth’s study.

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