The year 1968 was a pretty tough year in America. Vietnam. War protests. The Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated. Robert Kennedy assassinated.
But there were some highlights. Apollo 8 was the first manned ship to orbit the moon. On Christmas Eve those back on earth heard the Apollo astronauts--Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders--take turns reading the first ten verses of Genesis 1.
And 1968 was also the year Johnny Cash recorded his live performance before 2,000 inmates at the notorious Folsom Prison.
The resulting album At Folsom Prison jumpstarted Cash's career. It had been many years since Cash had recorded a hit. Some of this had to do with Cash's drug problems. But some of it was cultural as well as record companies, in the wake of the British Invasion, felt that country music was too old fashioned for the psychedelic vibe of the '60s. But Cash convinced Bob Johnson, the new head of Columbia Records, to let him make a live album of one of his prison concerts. Cash had been doing prison concerts for a few years and wanted to capture the energy and electricity of those performances. Johnson agreed. And Cash was proved right. At Folsom Prison was a commercial and critical success. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Both Time and Rolling Stone have At Folsom Prison as one of the Top 100 albums of all time.
There are many things that make At Folsom Prison special. I'm particularly fond of the guards breaking in from time to time to make announcements. You just don't hear that on many albums. But what makes the album so iconic is how it captured, symbolized and solidified Cash's reputation as someone who stood in solidarity with those on the margins of society--the poor, the down and out, the disenfranchised, the criminal and the marginalized.
In the 1999 re-release of At Folsom Prison the liner notes contain a handwritten note from Johnny Cash written a few years before his death in 2003. It reads:
Folsom Prison Blues
The culture of a thousand years is shattered with the clanging of the cell door behind you. Life outside, behind you immediately becomes unreal. You begin to not care that it exists. All you have with you in the cell is your bare animal instincts.
I speak partly from experience. I have been behind bars a few times. Sometimes of my own volition sometimes involuntarily. Each time, I felt the same feeling of kinship with my fellow prisoners.
Behind the bars, locked out from “society,” you’re being re-habilitated, corrected, re-briefed, re-educated on life itself, without you having the opportunity of really reliving it. You’re the object of a widely planned program combining isolation, punishment, taming, briefing, etc., designed to make you sorry for your mistakes, to re-enlighten you on what you should and shouldn’t do outside, so that when you’re released, if you ever are, you can come out clean, to a world that’s supposed to welcome you and forgive you.
Can it work??? “Hell NO.” you say. How could this torment possibly do anybody any good…..But then, why else are you locked in?
You sit on your cold, steel mattressless bunk and watch a cockroach crawl out from under the filthy commode, and you don’t kill it. You envy the roach as you watch it crawl out under the cell door.
Down the cell block you hear a steel door open, then close. Like every other man that hears it, your first unconscious thought reaction is that it’s someone coming to let you out, but you know it isn’t.
You count the steel bars on the door so many times that you hate yourself for it. Your big accomplishment for the day is a mathematical deduction. You are positive of this, and only this: There are nine vertical, and sixteen horizontal bars on your door.
Down the hall another door opens and closes, then a guard walks by without looking at you, and on out another door.
“The son of a ….”
You’d like to say that you are waiting for something, but nothing ever happens. There is nothing to look forward to.
You make friends in the prison. You become one in a “clique,” whose purpose is nothing. Nobody is richer or poorer than the other. The only way wealth is measured is by the amount of tobacco a man has, or “Duffy’s Hay” as tobacco is called.
All of you have had the same things snuffed out of your lives. Every thing it seems that makes a man a man. a woman, money, a family, a job, the open road, the city, the country, ambition, power, success, failure – a million things.
Outside your cellblock is a wall. Outside that wall is another wall. It’s twenty feet high, and its granite blocks go down another eight feet in the ground. You know you’re here to stay, and for some reason you’d like to stay alive--and not rot.
So for the fourth time I have done so in California, I brought my show to Folsom. Prisoners are the greatest audience that an entertainer can perform for. We bring them a ray of sunshine in their dungeon and they’re not ashamed to respond, and show their appreciation. And after six years of talking I finally found the man who would listen at Columbia Records. Bob Johnston believed me when I told him that a prison would be the place to record an album live.
Here’s the proof. Listen closely to this album and you hear in the background the clanging of the doors, the shrill of the whistle, the shout of the men…even laughter from men who had forgotten how to laugh.
But mostly you’ll feel the electricity, and hear the single pulsation of two thousand heartbeats in men who have had their hearts torn out, as well as their minds, their nervous systems, and their souls.
Hear the sounds of the men, the convicts all brothers of mine with the Folsom Prison Blues.