Thursday, February 7, 2008

40 Year Anniversary: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison

Even though I was not yet born, 1968 remains my favorite year for American music. There were two historic concerts that year, Johnn Cash playing and recording live at Folsom Prison in January and Elvis Presley's "68 Comeback Special" aired on NBC in December of 1968.

Johnny Cash gave one of his greatest performances at Folsom Prison, January 13, 1968. The country was experiencing a time of unrest (Vietnam, Civil Rights movement, etc). For Johnny Cash personally, he was finally able to kick his drug habit with the help of his new wife, June Carter. In reading various excerpts from him, it seems that he came to embrace the gospel around this time period, he certainly made a clear profession of faith many times in subsequent years, right up until his death in 2003. There was really no good reason to play a concert in a dangerous prison and Cash's producers weren't happy he wanted to do so. Even as publicity stunts go, playing Folsom made little sense as most of Cash's fans by 1968 were straight-laced church goers, especially with his growing connection to the gospel-singing Carter family. Playing a prison was a real risk professionally and personally for Cash.

Folsom Prison is California's second oldest prison, constructed in 1878. It was well known for it's harsh conditions, that's what made Cash reference it in his 1956 writing of "Folsom Prison Blues", easily Cash's most famous and best-selling song. While Cash had some relatively minor run-in's with the law, that song became an underground hit in prisons across the country striking a chord with men serving prison time. Many prisoners thought Cash was writing the song as a convict himself, when in fact he was only arrested once (for drug possession) and served just a day or two in a cell. Still, Cash had a certain compassion for people in prison and decided to try and serve them in some way by doing the concert in the Folsom Prison cafeteria in 1968.

I have listened to the album hundreds of times. It's a bold statement, but it might be my favorite album ever. It contains his best recorded performances for many of his usual concert songs like "Folsom Prison Blues", "I still Miss Someone", and "Give My Love to Rose". The album also contains unique recordings, hard if not impossible to find anywhere else, like "Cocaine Blues" and "25 Minutes to go". Finally, I think The Folsom Prison album has the best recording of "Jackson" ever done. Of course, this is a duet with June Carter, who in my opinion isn't a very good singer, but in this recording she does a splendid job on "Jackson".

The likes of Johnny Cash, the man in black, will not likely ever be seen again and this particular album is his best recording. I recommend viewing the 2005 depiction of Johnny Cash's pre-1968 life, "Walk the Line". The respective performances of Joaquin Phoenix (as Cash) and Reese Witherspoon (as June Carter) have been widely and accurately acclaimed. My only beef with the movie is the very slighting reference to Cash's conversion to Christianity. Also, the film ends with his Folsom Prison performance in 1968 yet Cash performed extensively for the next 35 years and became more vocal about his faith in Christ as the years progressed. Apparently his life wasn't as interesting to Hollywood when the infidelity and drugs stopped?

Johnny Cash was an American folk-country-blues genius. I'm going to listen to "Dirty Old Egg-Suckin' Dog" now....


Rick Calohan said...

My dad always thought Johnny sounded better prior to his conversion. I guess when you look at the Sun Label of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison you can see that although great music came from these musician and allot of reminders of how sin destroys lives. That by the Grace Alone, through Christ Alone can redeem and transform your life from the depths of total depravity. While all these men were brought up in the Bible Belt, Elvis was a Pentecostal who sadly drifted in the New Age Occults. Johnny was raised a Baptist and struggled throughout his walk. Jerry Lee Lewis a Pentecostal who sold his soul for fame and fortune. Roy Orbison family attended Church of Christ and Baptist but also dabbled in Eastern Religions. Of the four only Elvis and Johnny insisted on doing Gospel albums, and they are some of the most wonderful songs ever made. However, Johnny unlike Elvis reminds us of His Saving Grace. I have the album; I was practically raised on Johnny Cash, and was able to see him at a Youth For Christ rally at Arrowhead Stadium circa 1975. One of my favorite songs from this wonderful album (you know those vinyl circular disc that have the hiss and scratches and warp in the hot Sun) albeit I have the CD, a gift to my father now proudly in my collection after his death in 2001 every time I see or hear Johnny I think of my dad.

An inmate wrote that favorite song from the Folsom LP.

Inside the walls of prison my body may be but my Lord has set my soul free
There’s a greystone chapel here at Folsom a house of worship in this den of sin
You wouldn’t think that God had a place here at Folsom
But he saved the souls of many lost men
Now there’s greystone chapel here at Folsom
Stands a hundred years all made of granite rock
It takes a ring of keys to move here at Folsom
But the door to the House of God is never locked
Inside the walls of prison my body may be but my Lord has set my soul free
[Guitar instrumental]
There are men here that don’t ever worship
There are men here who scoff at the ones who pray
But I’ve got down on my knees in that greystone chapel
And I thank the Lord for helpin’ me each day
Now there’s greystone chapel here at Folsom
It has a touch of God’s hand on ever stone
It’s a flower of light in a field of darkness and it’s givin’ me the strength to carry on
Inside the walls of prison my body may be but my Lord has set my soul free

I believe the Man in Black is where White now and making even more wonderful music with our Creator, Savior, and Sustainer.

Rick Calohan said...

Another reason why you should post on blogs at work you lose your train of thought with other distractions.

What I meant to say was I believe the Man in Black is wearing White now and making even more wonderful music with our Creator, Savior, and Sustainer.

Only 25 minutes to go!

Mark Davis said...

Sweet tea, demo derby, pro wrestling, deer hunting, taxidermy in the office, a hand-built small-block looking for a home -- and now Johnny Cash. Not the late recordings, but the real deal, 1968 and earlier still. Man, that's down home. All you need is a punchy middle name, and you're in. Tony Jim doesn't really ring, but Tony Joe would be classic.

Seriously, that's some quality Cash. My favorite Cash is "Ring of Fire". My dad's favorite is "Orange Blossom Special", and for good reason. When NASA had gotten on his last nerve, and he'd had all he was going to take, he quit cold. He stood up from his desk, cranked up his radio wide open, which was playing "Orange Blossom Special" and walked.

Now that you brought it up, I just gave another listen to the "At Folsom Prison" album. Cocaine, whiskey, guns, love, murder, cheatin, ghosts, Juarez, court, home, mama, Jesus -- Cash is Americana like no other.

Cash is 50 years triple OG!

AJF said...

If I wasn't absolutely sure of my parentage, I would definitely wonder if I was stolen from one of the confederate states...someday I might pitch this whole Kansas thing and move to Alabama!

Frontier Forest said...

How about “A Boy Named Sue!” That was right up there too! Some great info Rick! Your many gifts and humble wisdom are truly admired and what a blessing!

AJF said...

"A Boy Named Sue" is indeed a classic, but it came after 1968 so it wasn't on the Folsom album.

malcolm said...

I kinda like the sound of T. Bubba Felich.

Frontier Forest said...

For some reason Tony, just can't see you diggen' Johnny Cash and Elvis? Thought you were more into the classics?

AJF said...

Cash and Elvis are the classics.....

Hey, I'm an eclectic guy.

Frontier Forest said...

No! Not Rock & Roll classics, more long-haired stuff, like Beethoven and Bach or Pavarotti.

AJF said...

I like Mozart to Metallica bro.

Wayne said...

And lest anyone forget, yesterday was the 34th anniversary of the debut of Blazing Saddles.

Now that's culture!

anglican@last said...

"Ballad of Ira Hayes" & "Sunday Morning Coming Down". Even contributed the final track "The Wanderer" to U2's best album Zooropa.

Dude, if you're going to get us all worked up like this, attach some mp3s!

Jeff in nj said...

Live at Folsom Prison is one of my "5 albums to have if you're stranded on a desert island" for sure. You can't beat Orange Blossom Special, Flushed from the Bathroom of your Heart, and Folsom Prison Blues. Oh yeah, don't forget 25 minutes to Go. And, of course, Long Black Veil. Well, just listen to the whole album.

Musicians always talk about the energy you get from different audiences (same probably for preachers, right Tony?)and I think that this audience was perfect for Cash and his music. There will never be a more appreciative audience. Something about Cash's music and prisoners goes perfectly together like peanut butter & jelly, grits & eggs, or pepperoni & provolone.

Kampfgruppe-H said...

"Tennessee Flat Top Box" is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs. My dad introduced me to Cash when I was a whole lot younger by introducing me to him through the guitar. My dad (and grandpa whom I never met) loved Cash and playing guitars. Apparently, so I'm told, they'd sit around playing Johnny's songs and trying to croon like him. I just love that Cash sound...'boom chicka boom'.

dbusenitz said...

Absolutely Great Singer. My wife and I enjoy his music and enjoyed the movie as well. Fulsom Prison has stuck in my heart as a place where redemption can happen and the grace of God can transform absolutely anybody. What a bold statement that was but soooo significant at that time and now as well. Thanks for the reminder.

Frontier Forest said...

Great to read some of the new blogger's responses! Tony, surprising to me, sure hit a homer on this one.

Rick Calohan said...

FYI: Johnny Cash was born on February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas.

John Patrick Calohan was born on February 26, 2008, in Shawnee Mission, Kansas.