Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison

Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
Released May, 1968

John. R. Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, into a working class family. He certainly lived a colourful life, and the experiences he had shaped the kind of musician he was to become. Cash was working in the cotton fields from the age of 5, an occupation that first introduced him to music, as he sang along with his family. As he grew up, Cash was taught to play the guitar by family and friends, and –being an avid listener of local radio – was exposed to both Gospel and Irish music.  These musical styles, coupled with his childhood experiences – including living through the Great Depression, and the tragic death of his brother Jack on the family farm at age 15 – would continue to influence his own music for decades to come. When he was 18, Johnny Cash enlisted in the United States air force and served for 4 years in Germany as a Morse Code Intercept Operator during the Cold War, his job being to monitor Soviet communications. In fact it has been said that Cash was among the first to know that Joseph Stalin had died – cool! Johnny Cash married twice, of course his most notable marriage being to the love of his life, country music singer and eventual touring partner and co-writer June Carter, to whom he was married from 1968 until her death in 2003. From the early 1950’s, and as his career began to take off, Cash drank heavily and suffered with drug addiction, a problem that continued to haunt him for the rest of his life. Johnny Cash got his first big break around 1954 when he auditioned for notable recording legend and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips (also responsible for discovering Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis) and recorded his first takes in 1955. The rest is history, as they say.

Around the time when “At Folsom Prison” was released, Cash’ career had been suffering a 5 year lull, and the raucous and controversial album provided the jump start that he needed. Recording during a live performance within the walls of Folsom Prison in California, Cash played to roughly 2,000 inmates. Cash’s songs centre around cold realities, such as murder, crime, jail time and rejection (by the way, listen out for the best musical analogy ever: ‘I’ve been flushed from the bathroom of your heart’). Although these songs were aptly chosen specifically to theme around the location, most of the songs Cash wrote throughout his entire career refer to living out jail time, missing loved ones, longing and loss.  Known as the ‘Man in Black’, Cash came to see himself as in mourning for the sadness that he had witnessed throughout his life, such as wars, deaths, tragedies and crime. He and his band dressed in black for their live performances as a way of inspiring hope in others. He was a troubled soul, but was able to find humour even in darkness and this really is exhibited here on this album, where Cash plays to his crowd and cracks dry jokes in the middle of songs that feature dire and depressing themes, such as the ’25 Minutes to Go’, which is about being on death row. Cash opens with his famous greeting ‘Hello I’m Johnny Cash’ to roars from the crowd and of course kicks it all off with his famous standard ‘Folsom Prison Blues’.  Despite the overriding sinister side to the album, Cash ends the performance on a positive note, performing an uplifting gospel song ‘Greystone Chapel’, written by Folsom Prison inmate Glen Shirley.

Johnny Cash is one of those artists that I have historically avoided, but I would put that down to ignorance, because once I listened to a full album, and read a bit of his biographies, I realised that he a fantastic pioneer of country-rock, plus, he was one of the first punk- rockers. I mean, not only did he get inspired by the grittiness and harsh realities that life can throw at you, but he also spoke out about it, was perceived to live life rebelliously and essentially stuck his finger to the man through his songs and his actions. His music is honestly not my cup of tea, but it’s a great listen from a guy who understood life and people and you can see why so many people relate to, and revere The Man in Black.

The most exciting part of this album, for me, was hearing it open with those iconic words, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” There’s no denying that the man in black was a charismatic performer with a huge presence, but I’ve never been a big fan. I like the odd song here and there, but I wouldn’t listen to a whole album for pleasure; although I did enjoy some of his covers on the American series that he started in 1994. Thankfully, many tracks on this album are fairly short, so it’s not too challenging a listen. Four songs struggle to hit the two minute mark! I was also struck by the audience’s reaction to Cash throughout the performance. A lot of these songs deal with crime and executions, so there are several roars of approval from the Folsom Prison inmates. It’s a little bit macabre. By the time I reached the album’s halfway mark, Cash’s downbeat delivery had worn me down and I had lost interest. All those tales of shooting people (or dogs) and rotting in prison just didn’t grab me. I think Nick Cave does it better. His clumsy rendition of ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ was also a big let down for me. I love that song. I guess Cash made a strong connection with the prisoners, as he also covers songs written by a couple of them. It was nice to hear June Carter come out and sing on ‘Jackson’ but her shrill voice, although a welcome change, sounds terrible on this recording. Give me the studio version any day. The most famous song here, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is a highlight, as is ’25 Minutes to Go’, counting down the last minutes of a condemned man. This isn’t an album I’ll be listening to again though.

One of us has to do it so it might as well be me – the audience was pretty captive on this album weren’t they? Apparently this was a project that Cash had been wanting to do since ’55, but only came to fruition after his career had started to take a bit of a dive that involved a stint with drugs… didn’t they all have drug problems in the 60s? This was an important album for Cash. Despite the little effort on Columbia’s part to promote the album, country was a little passé you see, it had great success and made Cash a popular artist again. So much so that it lead to him getting his own television show. Johnny Cash is a story teller and a good one at that. He has you believing that the stories he sings about could be about him. There is a certain honesty in which you can relate to. I’ve never shot a man in Reno and I’m pretty sure old mate Cash didn’t either, but you believe him and you are there with him every step of the way. He dares you with that big booming voice to not believe him. I liked this album but it took me awhile to get into it. We all know how much I love a murder ballad… black humour is right at my alley. However, there was something disconcerting about listening to a guy sing about killing a man to a rowdy group of prisoners who gleefully cheer along. Over repeated listens that actually became a little too much for this reviewer. Highlights included ‘Jackson’ with the impeccable June Carter, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and the classic ‘The Long Black Veil’. Probably won’t give it another spin in a hurry but glad I had the chance.

Hello everybody, I’m Johnny Cash. I’m not sure why this album exists. Surely, as criminals, prisoners are in jail for punishment? Why are they bring rewarded? But that’s neither here nor there. It happened at Folsom Prison way back in 1968, and I’m glad it did. It’s a good album, if slightly creepy. In the legacy version of the album, the announcer tells the prisoners it’s being recorded “So if you hear something you like, respond in kind”. Which is great, until they all cheer when Cash sings “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”. And they all applaud in ‘Dirt Old Egg Sucking Dog’, when Cash talks about stomping his dog’s head in the ground…. Combined with the general theme of murdering through the album, it’s all just a little weird for my liking. Musically, it’s not amazing. There’s no stand out musicians and the songs are very short. Though I think there is something in the simplicity of it. The lack of complications in the music and almost everything on the beat leaves room for Cash and his stories to be unimpeded to the audience. Story telling is clearly the strength of Johnny Cash, and his musical arrangements reflect this. The concert itself had a good mix of fast, country songs, slow ballads, and even novelty songs, like ‘Bathroom Of Your Heart’. I can’t stand listening to June Carter talk, but I quite like listening to her sing. She has kind of a raw country voice that contrasts, but doesn’t clash with Cash’s. It is a shame we only get one song with her. Anyone can play songs, but it takes something else to entertain, and Cash succeeds, though the crowd’s enthusiastic responses could be due to them having no forms of outside enjoyment.

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