A large part of Johnny Cash’s musical identity was established, of all places, in prison. Although the singer himself stayed on the right side of the law (for the most part), he felt a certain kinship with the prison population, full of wayward souls and hard-luck stories. The legend’s first jailhouse album, At Folsom Prison, speaks to this relationship, and is brimming with the boisterous enthusiasm of a crowd of convicts who felt a commonality and connection with Cash and his wicked, witty songs of sinful indulgence and its consequence.
By the late sixties, Cash had been finding limited space for his songs on country radio, but the album (a risk that Columbia Records feared for him to take) revitalized his career. Recorded on January 13, 1968 at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, California, Cash’s live release, also featured his wife, June Carter Cash and friend Carl Perkins, along with Cash’s terrific touring band. It was ultimately a milestone that showcased all the great subjects of country music. At Folsom Prison is all loneliness and loss, religion and redemption and, of course, the crimes of passion and anger that befell the inmates of the famous jailhouse.
The centerpiece, “Folsom Prison Blues,” is a perfect reflection of the dark, depressing nature that permeates throughout the album. It was the original inspiration for Cash to make a complete live recording, and the track crackles with a crazy candor. The song, first released in 1955, is the classic train song, restless in rhythm and tone, as “time keeps draggin’ on” and the narrator is tortured by the success of other’s dreams and the failure of his own. The narrator’s apathy ran high the night he shot a man in Reno, an action taken “just to watch him die,” and his faith and freedom dies right there with the cold, lifeless body of a stranger. It’s a work of staggering depth and despair.
Cash shows off considerable attitude on the other prison-themed songs, including “Cocaine Blues,” “25 Minutes to Go” (an eerie countdown to a world-weary man‘s execution) and “I Got Stripes.” The final song, “Greystone Chapel,” was written by an inmate, Glen Sherley. A prison preacher gave Cash an audio tape of Sherley’s rendition of the song, and Cash decided to include his own take on the redemption tune. It lends a somber tone to the final moments of the album, and perfectly fits among the tales of sadness and struggle with inner demons.
The collection also features two Cash duets with his wife, June Carter Cash: “Jackson” and “Give My Love to Rose.” And the comical tunes “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” and “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart” (both courtesy of Jack Clement) join these duets in giving welcome relief to the absolute core of the album: the comfort and the costs in sinning. The plaintive ballad “I Still Miss Someone” is even more effective in this setting, displaying a loneliness and vulnerability that’s surely at the heart of every pitiful prisoner.
The performance by Cash is electric, and the recording is real honest-to-goodness atmospheric wonder. From the warden’s words to the clanking of jail cells to the raucous, rowdy agreement of the audience, At Folsom Prison is a warts-and-all masterpiece that chills to the bone with just the baritone in Cash’s robust voice and a handful of entertaining (and often intense) songs. They scream to every outlaw and inmate, imprisoned or otherwise.
Numerous accolades marked the commercial and critical success of set. The album remained at #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart for ten weeks, won Album of the Year from the Country Music Association and earned Cash the Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. He received an additional award in the Best Album Notes category. Even after four decades, At Folsom Prison has still not lost its appeal. In 2003, Rolling Stone named the Cash classic as one of the Top 100 albums in music history. Later that year, it was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry.
At Folsom Prison is stark and dark and full of a heading-for-hell lust for revenge, but it also helps to explain the drive and desire that has caused these crimes to be committed. By humanizing these captive criminals and showing at least some similarities between them and the general public, he even justifies the belief that first impressions can be deceiving and second chances can be deserved. Folks from all walks of life can raise their hands in a raw, unbridled emotion as Cash digs deep into our human nature for 55 memorable minutes.
For all of the reasons that you’ve indicated so well, I love this album. I also love this album because Johnny’s interaction with the prisoners is electric. He doesn’t treat them with scorn. While he understands that they’re there for a reason and deservedly so, he treats them with dignity. He knows that they all have stories that have led them to that place.
Unquestionably one of the great albums of any musical genre released during the 1960s, and a definitive one for the Man In Black. It really does speak to the common people, whether they’re on the inside or outside of a prison cell, and that’s who Johnny considered himself, not a mere superstar.
It should also be mentioned that this album did quite well on the pop album chart, helping to solidify his reputation with younger audiences who saw him as a man of bedrock integrity who also embraced social change. His ability to cross genre, generational, and political lines makes him a true maverick in my book.
A great work, to be sure, and I can only imagine how fascinating a release it must have been back then. I’ve always slightly preferred the material on San Quentin, but I think you’re right that this one paints a unified picture of humanity – in that sense, it’s probably the better complete album.
I’m with LeeAnn in that Cash’s interaction with his audience here awesomely brilliant. He really was a voice for the downtrodden and the advocate for the ‘prisoner who has long paid for his crimes’ …
I purchased this album in 1968 and went through two copies of it. By the time I needed the third copy, I had a cassette recorder so I played it once to tape it and then only played it again to make a new tape copy some years later.
This was an electrifying album. I’d like to tell you it was my introduction to Cash, but it wasn’t. I’d been aware of Cash since I was eleven (in 1963) and a few weeks before purchasing this album, I’d acquired the RING OF FIRE and I WALK THE LINE albums (a pair of mid-60s albums on Columbia)
The story of Greystone Chapel is an interesting one. In addition to Cash’s recording of “Greystone Chapel” Sherley had gotten the song “Portrait of My Woman” to Eddy Arnold, who had a minor hit with it.
Glen Sherley eventually was released released from prison, but before that happened, with Johnny Cash’s assistance (and that of the House of Cash), he recorded an album which included a tribute to Cash titled the “Measure of a Man”. The album was recorded and released 1971 on the Mega label with Johnny Cash writing liner notes for the album. At the time it was recorded Glen Sherley was still incarcerated at the State Prison in Vacaville, CA.
Sadly, Glen Sherley never really adjusted to life as a free man and committed suicide in 1978.
Paul, interesting story about Glenn Sherley. Thanks for sharing it.
I don’t know why, Dan, but I’ve always preferred this one over San Quentin. Maybe because it was the first and sequels don’t always measure up to the firsts for me.
I think the Legacy edition of this album (and San Quentin) made it even more essential listening. It’s a fantastic concert from an artist in peak form in front of what I saw one reviewer describe as “the very definition of a captive audience.”
I prefer the live versions here of many tracks to the originals, particularly “Folsom Prison Blues.”
I’ve always wondered what happened with the writer of that song, Paul. Thanks for sharing that.
The San Quentin album, as it was originally released, was a bit of a shaft in terms of playing time. Only nine songs amd the performance sounds rather rushed.
In its restored full Cash concert version (and the further restored woth everybody’s songs concert version) San Quentin is an excellent album
Kevin, me too. There’s just something about the live performances, which is a testament to a true artist rather than a manufactured one.
…“the very definition of a captive audience.”
Wish I’d thought of that!
Yes, a truly remarkable story, Paul. I also have to agree with your thoughts on San Quentin. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it left quite the indelible mark. It’s still wonderful, though.
This is one of my favorite albums of all time (along with San Quentin). On the day he died, I drove out to the lake and listened all the way through on my lunchbreak with tears in my eyes. Fantastic write up.
When Cash died, I had a student who was very disappointed that she didn’t get to tell me first, as she knew my affection for country music. (Well, all of them did. I’ve gotten teacher’s appreciation day cards with Pam Tillis pictures on them.)