Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison (Album of the Week)

This week I’m heading in to one of music’s most significant and unique live albums. One of America’s most iconic performers and a totally captive audience forged history one Sunday morning in a California prison.

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison

Released May 6, 1969 via Columbia Records

My Favorite Tracks – Folsom Prison Blues, Cocaine Blues, The Legend Of John Henry’s Hammer

The history of Johnny Cash and prison performances goes all the way back to 1956 and his second single, Folsom Prison Blues. After release the song circulated among inmates and it became a favorite among them, they would write Cash asking him to perform at their prisons. Cash obliged and began a run of prison concerts. Both the inmates and Cash enjoyed the performances and the shows became an occasional part of his schedule.

By 1967 Cash had a bit of a career layoff, the given reason being drug use. He got cleaned up a bit and then approached a newly-reorganized Columbia Records country division about doing a live prison album. A maverick exec agreed and the plan was put in place to record live at Folsom. It took a while for the show to materialize but it was finally recorded in January 1968.

Cash and his outfit recorded two full sets on a Sunday morning – much of the material that would make the original release is from the first set, only two songs from the second were included as the band sounded tired and down on the later set. A 1999 re-issue saw 3 more tracks included, and this edition is what I’ll be discussing today. A later 2008 release saw both sets offered in full as well as a documentary in a Legacy edition. I am currently looking to get that version and may do a rundown of it when I get it, but today will be a more comprehensive look at the wider release.

The album opens with Folsom Prison Blues, which is an obvious choice to open a concert at Folsom but was also Cash’s long-time opener anyway. The song runs on a pretty upbeat tempo despite being about a man languishing in prison while free people ride the trains to anywhere. It’s pretty easy to picture yourself on the train rolling along to the music, going to anywhere but Folsom Prison. The infamous line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” is here, though it was cut out of the single release after the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Up next is Busted, a song originally penned by Harlan Howard. It is a sad but also funny song about being broke, something that hasn’t changed much since the 1960’s. Then comes Dark As A Dungeon, a tragic tale about working in a coal mine written by Merle Travis. The song resonated through the mining community as mining work is extremely tough, though on this live cut there is some funny banter between Cash and an inmate. After the song Cash lets the crowd know the concert is being recorded and you can’t say “hell and shit.” Cash then goes into one of his originals, I Still Miss Someone. It is a brief lament about an old lover and would become a frequent setlist inclusion after the Folsom concert.

It’s now on to Cocaine Blues, another tale about ending up put away for murder and one of the highlights of the record. The song was originally written by Troy Arnall and recorded by Roy Hogsed in 1944. Cash’s version changes up a few lyrics to suit the Folsom audience and also throws the word “bitch” in, something that got a bit of discussion through the years and Cash went back and forth on through different versions.

Cocaine Blues sees Willy Lee shoot his woman for being unfaithful, then he hides out in Mexico but is found and brought back for trial. The lesson is apparently not to use cocaine, as opposed to maybe don’t shoot people. Though I guess the song isn’t as interesting without the murder, I don’t know. The song was a hit with the inmates and also the people on the outside.

Up next is 25 Minutes To Go which was originally composed by Shel Silverstein. It’s a funny look at someone condemned to execution who is counting down each minute by observing what’s about to happen to him. Cash famously skips a few of the minutes in the song but his delivery is spot on. Cash then next announces he’s going to do Orange Blossom Special and then do a few ballads by himself. He also has some trouble locating his setlist in a funny bit of banter.

Orange Blossom Special is an old 1938 tune from Erwin T. Rouse that was a popular hit at bluegrass festivals and a favorite of fiddlers to play. Cash had recorded a studio cut of the song a few years prior to the Folsom concert and brought it out live here. He also used a harmonica to replace the fiddle parts and the performance marks yet another highlight from the set.

And now it’s into a trio of sad ballads. First is The Long Black Veil, a 1959 song first recorded by Lefty Frizzell. In it a man is executed despite not having committed the murder, the problem is his alibi – he was in bed with his best friend’s wife during the murder. Send A Picture To Mother is a Cash original that sees a man in prison relaying to his released cellmate to give regards to the narrator’s family. Ending the trilogy is The Wall, a Howard Harlan-penned song about a prisoner who is lovesick and dies trying to climb the prison wall.

Up next is a trio of funny songs Cash had done on a novelty album a few years prior. First comes Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog, written by Jack Clement and originally performed by Cash. The poor dog keeps eating the owner’s chickens and is the target of contempt. Clement also wrote the next track, Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart, a funny track that laments the loss of the narrator’s woman. The humor wraps up with Joe Bean, a young man who is being executed for a murder he didn’t commit. Joe’s mother knows his alibi – he was robbing a train when the murder was committed. The governor doesn’t pardon Joe but does wish him a happy birthday, which falls on the same date as his execution.

Cash would then introduce his wife June Carter to duet on a song. There’s some funny banter between the two before they go into Jackson, one of the more famous offerings from the pair. The song was originally written in 1963 by Billy Wheeler and Jerry Leibler. Cash and Carter had a hit with their version in 1967 and the performance of it here was a huge hit with the crowd.

The next two selections are from the day’s second set. First is Give My Love To Rose. It’s a Cash original where a man finds a dying person who was just released from prison. The ex-con was trying to make it back to see his family one last time but won’t make it so the man agrees to give his love to Rose. Cash then pulls out another original, I Got Stripes. Its another tune lamenting being in prison, assuredly another hit with the crowd of prisoners.

Up next is The Legend Of John Henry’s Hammer. The origins of the song are murky but are centered around a real African-American freedman who drove steel on the railroad lines. Henry famously raced a steam powered machine and won the race, though it cost him his life.

Cash’s rendition includes the sounds of spikes being driven and the various sounds of the steam engine. In this version John Henry bests the steam machine but succumbs to over-exertion the next morning. It is a true man versus machine tale that highlights the encroachment of technology on human life. John Henry has to drive steel to feed his large and destitute family, the advancement of technology doesn’t do him any favors.

The set heads into the home stretch with Green, Green Grass Of Home. The song was a very popular standard written by Curly Putnam and performed by Porter Wagoner and Tom Jones, among many others. A man is walking back through his hometown recounting memories, though in reality he is actually walking to his execution. The song has a very uplifting feel despite its pretty morose twist.

The set ends with Greystone Chapel, which is a very unique bit of lore from this live set. The song was written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, the song is about the very chapel at Folsom. The Folsom minister gave Cash a tape of the song the night before the live show and Cash decided to perform it. The song is a praise tune that uplifts the bastion of the chapel in the face of Folsom prison.

Note – the story of Glen Sherley is an interesting one, but one that won’t fit in today’s already-crowded post. I’ll do some digging on his tragic tale and offer up a separate post later on.

The band jams out a bit to wrap up the set, to a thunderous response from the crowd. The recording ends with the second set’s conclusion, which introduces Johnny Cash’s father Ray, as well as the warden (who doesn’t get the same loving reception Mr. Cash does).

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison was an unconventional experiment that paid huge dividends for Cash’s flagging career. The record would top the country charts and also spend a very long time on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, the precursor to the Billboard 200. The album spent a total of 124 weeks on the album chart.

The legacy of At Folsom Prison is vast. This live set has books and documentaries about it and it is widely hailed as one of music’s greatest live performances. It was a landmark moment in Johnny Cash’s career and set him on a course for more hitmaking in the early 1970’s, including a handful of other prison performances. This was one of the Man In Black’s several career reinventions, a theme he’d continue until his death in 2003.

Beyond the scope of the album’s place in music, Cash was also noted for his egalitarian treatment of prison inmates. Many people simply cast off prisoners as people suffering the consequences of their actions, but Cash approached them as humans and did not let them rot forgotten. It’s a type of outreach that’s hard to quantify but certainly had its effects. One 1958 Cash performance at San Quentin had a great deal of influence on one of the inmates there – a guy by the name of Merle Haggard. By the time Cash was releasing live prison albums, Haggard was well on the way to his own country stardom.

Johnny Cash was a country legend, but also didn’t always fit the scene. His out-of-the-box approach to doing a live album shaped a legacy otherwise unseen in music. It is a vital piece of country music history and music as a whole.

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