The Man in Black goes to Folsom

January 12, 2018

On the 50th anniversary of Johnny Cash's concerts behind prison walls, later released as At Folsom Prison, Nicole Colson looks at how Cash gave voice to the voiceless.

"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.

On January 13, 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 American 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.

TODAY, JOHNNY Cash is well known for having been "the Man in Black." In the 1971 song, he famously sang:

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Living in the hopeless, hungry side of town.
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

Johnny Cash performs at Folsom Prison
Johnny Cash performs at Folsom Prison

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 would 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."

Cash's hit song "Folsom Prison Blues," recorded in 1955 on the Sun Record label, wasn't inspired by his own jail time, but by a bad B-movie called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. But the material became something more to Cash.

Contrary to popular belief, Johnny never "shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." In fact, he was never behind bars for longer than a single night, nor even accused of a serious crime. The worst misdemeanor he was convicted of was setting a forest fire, for which he was fined. He spent a few nights in jail--mainly for drugs, or, in one instance, for picking flowers.

Cash would later say, explaining the popularity of "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 HAD tried many times to get record executives to let him record one of his prison shows, always to be shot down.

While he believed such an album would be a hit, 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."

Cash was far from a sure bet, however. His drug addiction had continued throughout much of the late 1950s and 1960s--leading to a string of self-destructive incidents, which led to his banning from 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 had also been waning. Although his songs still did well on the country charts, 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 in the U.S.--inspired by the strength of other political and social movements, and spurred on by several 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 by both guards and inmate "trustees."

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

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

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

It's hard to overstate just how bad Folsom was--a maximum security prison, with all of the worst aspects that entailed at the time: 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 on January 13 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 from those January 13 shows is one of the best American records ever made and quickly shot to number one when it was released.

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.

Although the hoots and hollers from prisoners that greet Cash throughout sound spontaneous, the prisoners were carefully coached to not applaud for Johnny immediately when he walked on stage, but to let loose only after he said his name.

In fact, the inmates were quiet throughout the song's performance, careful not to applaud or cheer at any comments about the prison itself for fear of retaliation from the guards. The raucous cheers at Johnny's infamous line about shooting a man "just to watch him die" were edited in later during production.

Some argue that takes away from the authenticity of a live recording, but the prisoners' voices become almost another instrument on the album.

"Folsom Prison Blues" combines two of Cash's favorite 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, and when it ended like toppling metal cans, the hall erupted. They identified with "Folsom," and Cash's performance of it carried him and them both through the show in rowdy partnership.

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 humor 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: "Inside the walls of prison my body may be / But my Lord has set my soul free."

CASH WOULD continue 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 separating first-time offenders from repeat offenders; changing laws to keep minors out of prison; a focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment; and counseling for prisoners to help them readjust to life outside of prison.

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

"Money cannot do the job," Cash would tell Congress about the necessity for prison reform. "People have got to care in order for prison reform to come about."

Attempting to show that in practice, Cash actually helped secure the release of Glen Sherley--the inmate who wrote "Greystone Chapel." Having been so institutionalized, Sherley had an extremely difficult time readjusting to life outside of prison. He ended up taking his own life in 1978 after shooting another man while on drugs.

Cash paid for his funeral.

As he would later say, summing up Folsom:

I didn't go into it thinking of it as a crusade. I mean, 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. That's all I'm tying to say...

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.

Cash would defend that view even when he and his family became the victims of crime. In the 1980s, three men broke into the family's home in Jamaica and held him, June, their 11-year-old son and a few others hostage on Christmas Day, stealing what they could from the house. In Cash's autobiography, he talks about his realization that the thieves were drug addicts looking for a fix.

Trying to avoid a scandal, the Jamaican authorities shot one of the men on site. The other two were captured, but officials "arranged" for the men to try to escape from prison--and shot them as they were trying to get away.

Asking himself how he felt about the men's deaths--men who had held a gun to his wife's and 11-year-old son's heads--Cash wrote:

What's my emotional response to the fact (or at least the distinct possibility) that the desperate junkie boys who threatened and traumatized my family and might easily have killed us all...were executed for their act--or murdered, or shot down like dogs, have it how you will?

I'm out of answers. My only certainties are that I grieve for desperate young men and the societies that produce and suffer so many of them, and I felt that I know those boys. We had a kinship, they and I: I knew how they thought, I knew how they needed. They were like me.

THAT'S THE message and the power of Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison show--and of all of his music, really: that his audience is just like him, and that there exists a connection and bond between the Man in Black and those nameless men in prison.

Today, the gift shop (yes, really) at Folsom prison banks on its association with Cash--selling "Folsom Prison" and "I Walk the Line" baseball caps and key chains.

But the real legacy of At Folsom Prison--and of Johnny Cash--is much larger.

The depth of feeling--the magic combination of the rawness of Cash's vocals, the flirtatious energy of his performance with June, the sorrow and the notes of grace contained in his version of Glen Sherley's "Greystone Chapel"--created a kind of musical magic, in which his audience was, for that moment, living vicariously through the songs.

As Cash later told biographer Robert Hilburn, the only reporter who bothered to cover the 1968 Folsom show:

I knew this was it. My chance to make up for all the times when I had messed up. I kept hoping my voice wouldn't give out again. Then I suddenly felt calm. I could see the men looking over at me. There was something in their eyes that made me realize everything was going to be okay. I felt I had something they needed.

That's the enduring legacy of Johnny Cash. He recognized 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.

Further Reading

From the archives