PLAYING TO THE FORGOTTEN: Why Johnny Cash went to Folsom Prison to make a live record, by Michael Streissguth (Arthur, 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 12 (September, 2004)…

PLAYING TO THE FORGOTTEN

Why JOHNNY CASH went to Folsom Prison to make a live record, as told by Michael Streissguth. Photography by Jim Marshall

Excerpted from Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Streissguth. Copyight © 2004 by Michael Streissguth. Reprinted with permission of Da Capo Press.


You’re starting fresh. We don’t even care what you’ve done. You act like a man here, we treat you like a man. You get stupid with us, we get stupid back. And if you don’t understand what that means, that means if you want to start fighting with us, then we’re going to start fighting back with you. And we’ll kick your ass. 

—Folsom Prison guard to newly-arrived Folsom inmates. 

Although Jimmie Rodgers uttered grizzly murder ballads in the 1920s and dozens of others had before and after him, very few artists of Johnny Cash’s stature recorded hit songs in the 1950s with lyrics as brazenly violent as I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die. Nor did any artist sound as if he or she could have pulled off the bloody deed. The Kingston Trio won a country and western Grammy in 1958 for “Tom Dooley,” yet few could imagine the well-scrubbed young men arriving late for dinner, much less stabbing “her with my knife”; and the honey-voiced Jim Reeves scored a hit with the treacherous “Partners” in 1959, but Gentleman Jim was the song’s Voice of God narrator, well distanced from the gory scene in a miner’s cabin. Cash’s gallows baritone, though, suggested that its owner just might gun down a man—even worse, a woman—and enjoy watching him—or her—squirm. 

“Folsom’s” homicidal line and its interpreter’s sawed-off shotgun delivery birthed a half century of myth, convincing many Americans that the rangy, dark-eyed man from Arkansas had done hard time for shooting a man when he had merely stewed in jail a few nights after alcohol and pill binges. But the myth endured. His audiences clung to it and over the years, Cash came to realize that trading on the myth—his tight association with the criminal world—stirred his audience’s imaginations and pocket books. Nobody bought the myth more willingly than prisoners. “After ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ the prisoners felt kinda like I was one of them,” said Cash. “I’d get letters from them, some asking for me to come and play.” 

Cash and the Tennessee Two first responded to a striped invitation in 1957, agreeing to play Huntsville State Prison in Texas. At the time, nobody with a top ten hit even considered performing inside prison walls, much less reading a prisoner’s letter. But Cash went ahead with the pioneering show, and although nobody remembers any fanfare around the date, they do remember a soggy day, a makeshift stage, shorted electric guitar and amps, Johnny picking and singing with no mic (and no Luther Perkins on guitar), and dozens of happy, happy men. “By doing a prison concert, we were letting inmates know that somewhere out there in the free world was somebody who cared for them as human beings,” said Cash, years later. 

From Huntsville, Cash courted a long-standing relationship with San Quentin State Prison, California’s oldest and one of its most notorious. When Cash first brought his show to San Quentin on New Year’s Day, 1958, a young man in the crowd convicted for a botched robbery attempt glimpsed his own future. Merle Haggard, who’d been sent up in 1957 for a three-year ride, sat spellbound by Luther’s picking and Cash’s showmanship and demeanor: “He was supposed to be there to sing songs, but it seemed like it didn’t matter whether he was able to sing or not. He was just mesmerizing.” The day inspired Haggard, who would know his own extraordinary career in country music. He channeled the gift of country music tradition from Cash that day, just as Cash had inherited it from the Louvin Brothers on the WMPS radio of his childhood and Ernest Tubb and Jimmie Rodgers and others, but Haggard’s recollection of the show also illustrates what Cash was delivering en masse to the prisoners: diversion, inspiration, solidarity. “There was a connection there,” continued Haggard, “an identification. This was somebody singing a song about your personal life. Even the people who weren’t fans of Johnny Cash—it was a mixture of people, all races were fans by the end of the show.” 

Over the next ten years, Cash logged some 30 prison shows, forgoing compensation but developing a hardened anti-prison sentiment. He witnessed the ravages of prison life in his audience, read about them in letters from prisoners, and heard about them from Rev. Floyd Gressett, Cash’s pastor in California, who frequently counseled imprisoned men. An image of life wasted by incarceration, now based on observation rather than a movie, took form in Cash’s mind. 

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