Crate-Digging Archive: Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

This column was previously published in early 2009, and presented here with some revision.

(Columbia, 1968; re-release 1999)

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

That should get you right there. At Folsom Prison, arguably the Man in Black’s greatest artistic statement, begins with this declaration in the famous baritone, and captures a legendary performance at a legendary and notorious venue. The recording is fantastic, and the captive audience – sorry, couldn’t resist – connects so deeply with the material that the enthusiasm resonates between each song, and even during certain numbers. But the best part about this record, besides the classic songs and the animated renditions by Cash and his band, is the interaction and camaraderie shared between performers and prisoners.

Cash had long been interested in performing at prisons, after his Air Force Security Service unit screened the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, which prompted him to write the titular tune. As his popularity grew throughout the 1950s, prisoners would write to him requesting him to structure his tour itinerary so that he could visit and perform for them. Cash first played Huntsville State prison in 1957, and due to the crowd response he decided to continue the trend. He was able to convince Columbia Records to record and release his 1968 concert at Folsom, and it turned into one of his most successful albums, certified gold by the RIAA by the end of the year.*

Cash and his backing band, The Tennessee Three, along with June Carter (who Johnny would marry later that year) are in rare form – The Tennessee Three in particular are as tight a backing band as you’ll hear. June Carter, surprisingly, is only featured on the superb “Jackson,” although the album is culled from the best of two separate concerts over a period of two days. (Her harmonization with Cash throughout the energetic song peaks at the first and final stanzas’ opening lines, “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout,” imitating their own real-life romance and accurately mirroring their excitement.)

Cash’s set is heavy on murder ballads and tales of tragedy – and the Folsom inmates eat it right up. Whether they’re laughing along to “Cocaine Blues” or “25 Minutes to Go” or moved by “The Long Black Veil” and “The Wall,” they soak up the musicians’ energy and reciprocate with a palpable gratitude. They cheer long and loud, knowing that Cash is there because he knows they need something other than their daily prison existence, which is what makes an album like At Folsom Prison, as well as Cash’s penchant for playing prisons in general, all the more special. They’re hard men, from hard backgrounds, and regardless of their crimes, they’re still human beings in desperate need of empathy. Johnny Cash himself grew up poor and rural, and he gets it – he understands the men’s plight. So he’s able to get in the inmates’ headspace a little bit, taking shots at The Man, as it were, poking fun at the guards, calling them “mean bastards,” and when he has to ask a couple times for water, the riotous shouting you hear from the crowd prompts the staff into action. (“Is everything served in a tin cup?”)

The original record was released in 1968 and re-released in 1999, and this is the version I have. It includes the previously unreleased “Busted,” “Joe Bean,” and “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.” A further reissue, the two-disc 2008 Legacy Edition, is the ultimate At Folsom Prison experience, featuring both concerts from which material was gathered for the original pressing. It also includes a bonus DVD featuring interviews and photographs from the sessions – sounds like something you oughta track down. Interestingly, both concerts end with a rendition of a song called “Greystone Chapel,” which was written by an inmate at Folsom and sent to Cash. Powerful stuff. There’s no arguing the mastery of the Man in Black on this recording, as he’s at the top of his game. This record is truly as good as he gets.

*Information gathered from the Wikipedia page for At Folsom Prison.

RIYL: Is this really necessary today?

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