The man, the myth, the legend that is Johnny Cash, left us 15 years ago, September 12, 2003; he was 71 years old.
His passing wasn’t just a loss for country music fans, but music lovers in general. A man whose career back catalogue – which spanned over 60 years – remains as powerful today as it did back then.
Perhaps one of the most important, personal, and influential albums to date, turns 50 years old, and remains a legend in music folklore – Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison – another testament to the musical icon.
The album has long been described as mythical. This particular gig, along with Cash himself, cemented itself into the imagination and hearts of fans, and for a whole host of explanations, it never left.
On January 13, 1968, Cash, dressed in one of his many iconic black outfits, walked into California’s Folsom Prison, in self-contradictory manner, and ultimately put himself on a level playing field with prisoners. Society’s view on prisoners at the time deemed inmates incapable of redemption and reform, and classed them as ‘third class’ citizens, if not lower.
His aura always gave him an authenticity, and despite never being sent to prison himself, he was heavily regarded as a man others could relate to. Grittier than your average star, ‘The Man In Black’ had qualities which struck a nerve and left an imprint.
Cash’s performance inside the jail was the first live recording of its kind, and paved the way for his ‘outlaw’ image – he was regarded as one of their own – and subsequently, it thrust him back into the spotlight.
However, it wasn’t the first time Cash had entertained convicts, having made three earlier visits to institutions over the previous six years.
His show at Folsom was so well received, he was invited back the next year. It was this return which provided the scene for his historic album.
Prior to this performance at Folsom, Cash’s career had already seen numerous ups and downs. It was seen as a mammoth gamble to play for a group of criminals – including murderers – but ultimately, it changed his image forever.
However, Mark Stielper, a Cash family friend who worked with Johnny on numerous projects, revealed ‘the whole Cash as a gangster saga was completely made up’, telling UNILAD:
Folsom is often pointed to as the genesis of Cash’s outlaw persona, although I think it’s way overblown – both the legitimacy of the album as outlaw, and Cash being one.
Of course, the venue is perfect for such a tale, but Cash didn’t go into a prison to start a riot; he went in to give hope to the lost.
The gangster saga was completely made up by the record company marketers, and while he didn’t mind the commercial success and all the attention garnered, John grew weary and resentful of the caricature.
It was a fanciful, even romantic myth of man overcoming his trials, while still being bad-ass enough to give the finger to ‘the Man’. But it was untrue, and served to diminish the power of his reality, which was noble and triumphant enough without resorting to made up foolishness.
Yet many have argued Folsom would’ve been redundant had it taken place at any other point in his career.
Stielper, who Cash called his ‘personal historian’ told UNILAD:
It probably could never have happened before or after. Cash was in a precarious state, health-wise and emotionally. His ex-wife (of just two weeks, Vivian Liberto) unexpectedly remarried two days before the show, and he was reeling.
Today, society would not support it. The inmate population is vastly different, too, and much more cynical. He wouldn’t have had the connection that he did in 1968. Forget a year or a decade; if it had happened a week earlier or a month later, it wouldn’t have happened.
Additionally, his efforts to break his prescription drug habit were sporadic and only partially successful. In fact, he recorded this epic album while stoned.
Cash’s emotional problems dated to an abusive childhood, and the cycle of stimulants and depressants was a reaction to anxiety and depression that had been present for decades.
As with many who were dependent on what was then considered ‘medication’, Cash believed their use helped him cope, or escape. That he was able, despite all that, to focus so intently and completely in planning and executing this moment, is testament to how important it was to him.
And thus, remains one of the most iconic pieces of work in music history.
‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’. His deep, baritone voice booms through the speakers, commanding attention. Whether he’s speaking to his prison audience, or the listener 50 years later, those four soulful words initiate the start of something big…
His set list starts with one of his most beloved hits, Folsom Prison Blues and on January 13, 1968, this song found its rightful home.
It epitomised what a genius Cash was at storytelling and for many, blurred the line between man and myth. He sang this song to those living it, to those who related to the song more than anyone else could fathom:
…I ain’t seen the sunshine, since, I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a-rollin’, on down to San Antone
When I was just a baby, my Mama told me, “Son
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns”,
But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die
As well as Folsom Prison Blues, his performance of Greystone Chapel, a song written by an inmate, sounds like it could have been autobiographical.
It may have come to be regarded as such, but at that instant, it was one man reaching his hand out to offer the touch of compassion to others.
Stielper calls it a: ‘stunning generous and monumental gesture, which transcended theatre or entertainment.’
Asked how it had come about that Cash recorded a prisoner’s song, Stielper continued:
Cash’s preacher friend, the inmates’ counselor who first connected him with the Folsom people, brought him a tape of Greystone Chapel while he was rehearsing at his hotel the night before the concerts. That was the only such song that he performed.
John was pivotal in getting the writer of Greystone Chapel, Glen Sherley, paroled, and even gave him a spot performing on the Johnny Cash Show concerts.
The effort was ultimately unsuccessful, as Sherley, a career criminal, did not adapt well to life outside the grey stone prison walls, and Cash was forced to cut ties. Sherley ended up committing suicide.
Stielper also spoke about the pathos and drama surrounding the legend of Cash, as well as the iconic album:
He spent an unusual amount of time playing the concert – there were actually two that day. It wasn’t a standard Cash show and many of the songs, he performed for the first time ever.
He wanted very much to connect [with the inmates] and bring a ray of light into their lives. He was invested in the moment. It wasn’t so much a ’cause’ or ‘project’ but him simply wanting to make a difference to people.
John Cash was never a dangerous man or a criminal. He did not identify with prisoners because he was ‘one of them’. He was not. His affinity for society’s down and out, those without light or hope in their lives, came from his own poverty-stricken early life as the son of a similarly stricken sharecropper.
When he looked out into the cafeteria that morning at Folsom, he saw many men whose families had fled the poverty and famine of America’s Dust Bowl and its destitute South, only to find no happy ending at the end of their journeys.
They could easily have been him.
Beyond the quality of the songwriting and musicianship the album holds an even greater importance.
When you consider what was happening during the time of its release, (which came some months after the performance, and during the sixties), music was playing an important role for change, amidst the political protest, sexual liberation, psychedelic drugs and questionable fashion which were taking place on both sides of the Atlantic.
We had The Beatles experimenting with new sounds, funk growing in popularity with James Brown at the forefront, Bob Dylan releasing anthems which were becoming vehicles for social change, such as Blowin’ In The Wind, and Motown acts like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder giving gospel and soul its rightful platform.
As a result, we had classics such as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, yet Cash started a revolution of his own, and At Folsom Prison rests among the pantheon of great 1960s albums.
As his daughter Rosanne Cash put it, to Rolling Stone:
They were each defining moments. They were completely original no matter if they contained derivative songs, they were still completely original recordings.
They defined the artist, and they kind of blew open the consciousness of the time.
Folsom tapped into the pure rebellion of the times and just that impulse to overthrow, to change things, to bump up against authority in all of its guises. That’s what the Sixties felt like to me. There was a revolution going on, and Folsom was part of the revolution.
At this point, it was unknown Cash would go on to be an advocate for prison reform.
Fitting the gigs in around his relentless touring schedule, Cash played to inmates all over the United States – always unpaid – and as a result, he became a passionate and vocal spokesman for prisoners’ rights – whether he meant to or not.
Cash was a staunch believer in rehabilitation over punishment, which many feel was probably due to his deeply-held religious beliefs.
He championed the cause and the power reform had, and became a go-to for this topic for many media outlets, outlining not only what he thought was wrong with the penal system, but how it could be improved.
Cash’s proposals included; the separation of first-timers and hardened criminals, the reclassification of offences to keep minor offenders out of prison, a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and counselling to prepare convicts for the outside world and to reduce the possibility of them reoffending.
However, Stielper revealed Cash wasn’t comfortable with all the attention garnered:
The central mission of John going behind those forbidding prison walls to offer his heart and his hand, (he personally donated money for the care of the prison chapel) has perhaps been overshadowed by the musical and cultural earthquake produced by the album.
Without preaching or pontificating, Cash brought attention to the American prison system and forced an examination of its purpose and values.
Yet because he saw what he was doing as more personal than policy, the legacy is mixed. He was dragged into political considerations of the topic – a place where he was very uncomfortable.
For all that though, the album stands, today, as an enduring testament to one man’s singular ability to move mountains, considered by many to be the greatest live recording ever made. It was country music with a conscience.
It’s the foundation of the ‘Johnny Cash Story’, surely one of the most consequential and heroic life stories of our time.
When parts of the world are still deciphering how to treat those they imprison, many of the ideologies Cash spoke of, feel just as relevant today, in 2018, and his music, remains as relevant as ever.
This is a testament to his character, separating the man from the myth.
Not only is Folsom the definitive Johnny Cash album, it’s one of the most important albums from any musician from the last half century.
Listening back to the record, it’s the one piece of work which perhaps personifies who he was, and his core values, as well as what made him so wonderful.
As Stielper tells us:
It is wholly inadequate to define Johnny Cash as, simply, a singer. His impact transcends music or genre. This is due to much more than his achievements as a seller of records, which were themselves, of course, considerable.
I attribute it to his humanity, his ability and willingness to use his own life and its lessons as a mirror and example to the rest of us.
He was not afraid or ashamed to profess his faith in One greater than all, nor did he forget or ignore those for whom life showed less mercy. He inspired and invoked.
At Folsom Prison makes a powerful cultural statement, but it also shows the audience can matter just as much when creating a piece of art, let alone one which has a lasting legacy. As Stielper calls it, pure ‘lightning in a bottle’.
In the famous words of Bob Dylan: ‘Johnny’s voice was so big it made the world grow small’.
A true American icon who will forever be remembered.