The Great (Live) Albums: Johnny Cash’s ‘At Folsom Prison’

The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!

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At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash (1968, Columbia)

I’m not trying to sound like some kind of pothead philosopher here, but if you really think about it the whole idea of “prison” is pretty fucking bizarre. I’m not taking a political stance. But think about it conceptually. Removing another human being from the normal circumstances of his or her life and placing them into intentionally harsh living conditions as punitive measure? It’s weird.

Now, obviously you can’t just have rapists and mad arsonists freely roaming around city streets with impunity. But still, there’s something just fundamentally icky about the whole rubric of incarceration. Something that runs contrary to our hardwired values as Americans; we, who have constitutionally ratified personal freedom as being a thing literally imbued to each one of us by God.

Plus, there’s the question of incarceration’s purpose, which to my knowledge has never been officially defined on a national level. Is incarceration’s purpose solely punitive? Or is its purpose to rehabilitate offenders and groom them to re-enter society? Or is it simply a means of warehousing humans who are just too dangerous, for whatever reason, to interact with the rest of us? I really like the idea of Option Two, and would probably settle for Option Three. But Option One makes my stomach churn, for all sorts of leftie-snowflake reasons.

In preparing this week’s review of Johnny Cash’s iconic 1968 live album, At Folsom Prison, I did some cursory Googling to try and uncover the actual Folsom Prison’s motivation for inviting the then-35-year-old country superstar to record an album at its facility on January 10, 1968. Nothing really came up. Perhaps Folsom’s administrators were (understandably) in thrall to Cash’s celebrity, or that they felt an obligation extend an invitation, after Cash had raised the penitentiary’s profile via the 1955 Sun Records smash “Folsom Prison Blues.” But do prisons even need to be marketed? I don’t know—I’m no Brubaker.

By the time Cash and his entourage—wife June Carter, backing band The Tennessee Three (Marshall Grant, W.S. “Fluke” Holland, and Luther Perkins), ringer axe-slinger Carl Perkins, and backing vocalists The Statler Brothers, plus Cash’s father, minister, and record producer—descended on the Northern California maximum security prison to perform two midday concerts (one at 9:40am, yielding 14 of the final LP’s 16 tracks, and another at 12:40pm, which produced two), Cash was recovering from a half-decade career slump characterized by waning chart popularity and champion substance abuse.

 Toilet hooch and toothpaste shivs not included

Toilet hooch and toothpaste shivs not included

But At Folsom Prison would be much more than Cash’s comeback, cementing the “Man in Black” as an enduring 20th century cultural icon and kicking off a celebrated run of behind-bars concert albums—a project that continued with 1969’s At San Quentin, 1973’s Swedish-set Pa Osteraker (“At Osteraker”), and 1976’s A Concert Behind Prison Walls (recorded in Tennessee.) Cash, of course, was always fond of thematic suites—from the prison quadrilogy, to Rick Rubin’s American Recordings series, to the 2000 box set compilation Love. God. Murder., which divvyed up Cash’s best material, by theme, across three CDs.

Folsom can likewise be split up into three distinct subgroups: tales of criminal justice and imprisonment—“Folsom Prison Blues,” “Cocaine Blues,” “Long Black Veil,” “Send a Picture of Mother,” “The Wall,” “I Got Stripes,” “Graystone Chapel”—tales of heartbreak, loss, or general fatalism—“Dark as a Dungeon,” “I Still Miss Someone,” “Orange Blossom Special,” Green Green Grass of Home”—and silly, crowd-pleasing novelty tunes—“25 Minutes to Go,” “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog,” and “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart.” But! The secret ingredient here is that there’s so much overlap between all three of these categories, cross-pollinating the DNA of a deceptively wide-ranging selection of material to create a thematically-unified whole.

The aural aesthetics of Folsom are equally on-brand, with the metallic slapback-echo of the electric guitar conjuring the clanging bars of a jail cell. And if the full-band numbers on Folsom are gen pop, the tunes performed by Cash on solo acoustic guitar (roughly a third of album) are solitary confinement—digging deep into the loneliness of prisons both figurative and literal in a way that only Johnny Cash’s deep baritone seems equipped to fully unpack.

 Cash performing for an, ahem,  captive  crowd at Folsom State Prison

Cash performing for an, ahem, captive crowd at Folsom State Prison

But all that makes At Folsom Prison sound like a dour affair. Nothing could be further from the truth. The general mood here is upbeat. Cash genuinely seems like he’s having a great time, frequently cracking up in the middle of songs, like the Jimmy Fallon of country music. My theory why Cash is so prone to fourth-wall-breaking here is that he was probably nervous to be performing in front of such an oddly specific and captive (pun intended) audience. But Cash’s self-interruptions don’t read as nervousness. They read as supreme self-confidence, painting a picture of a cheery, relaxed Man in Black grateful to commiserate with his badass rebel kin

At Folsom Prison solidified Cash’s long-enduring myth. To some degree, every artist who seeks to present him- or herself as a soulful, humanistic badass is still working off the James Dean/Johnny Cash model. But Cash was just being himself; just a guy who’d made a few mistakes, now looking for a little bit of light coming through the iron latticework of his concrete cell.

-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)