Subscribe to our newsletter to stay updated on entertainment news
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”. With this brief introduction, followed by the applause of the crowd and the first notes of Folsom Prison Bluesthe album opens At Folsom Prison, the twenty-sixth of the country singer-songwriter’s discography and his first live (THE MOST FAMOUS JOHNNY CASH SONGS). The disc was recorded live in two concerts held on January 13, 1968, exactly 55 years ago, in the Californian maximum security prison of Folsom. The album was a huge success and relaunched Cash’s career, becoming a musical milestone. Here’s everything you need to know.
The genesis of the disc
While serving in the US Air Force, young Johnny Cash first became interested in Folsom State Prison, California. With his unity of him, in 1953, he saw the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, which inspired him to write a song about his perception of prison life. Thus the song was born Folsom Prison Blues, released as a single by Sun Records in 1955. The song, one of Cash’s classics, became very popular with inmates: many wrote to him asking him to perform in their prisons. In 1957 Cash had his first live in a prison in Huntsville. The reception was excellent and in the following years the artist performed regularly in other prison structures. But Johnny Cash’s career was in decline, mainly due to his addiction to drugs. In 1967 he asked for help and at the same time the country section of Columbia Records, to which the artist was under contract, passed into the hands of the eclectic and unruly Bob Johnston, who enthusiastically welcomed Cash’s idea of recording a live record from I live in a prison (a project that the top management of the record company did not like). Johnston instead backed Cash and pitched the concert to San Quentin and Folsom State Prisons. The latter answered first.
Cash, June Carter (who would become his wife a few months later), the Tennessee Three, Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers, had a few days of rehearsals. During these sessions, then California Governor Ronald Reagan, who was staying at the same hotel, visited the band for encouragement. One of the main goals was to learn the unreleased piece Greystone Chapel, song written and recorded by inmate Glen Sherley, who passed it on to the reverend who was in charge of prison recreation. It was he who made it listen to Cash who wanted at all costs to include it in the lineup a few hours after the performance. Cash opted for a double show on 13 January, one at 9.40 and one at 12.40, to have more material in case the first show proved unsatisfactory. The show began with a long introduction, featuring Carl Perkins and then the Statler Brothers. Johnny Cash’s waiting in the wings was used as the opening scene of the biopic Walk The Line (of 2005), which traces the life of Cash and Carter (masterfully played by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon).
Cash opened both shows with a performance by Folsom Prison Bluesfollowed by many prison themed songs, including The Wall, Green, green grass of home and the passage on waiting for the gallows 25 Minutes to Go. There is then Dark as a Dungeonemblematic song by Merle Travis about despair. After Orange Blossom SpecialCash included some slow ballads like The Long Black Veil. June Carter joined to perform a couple of duets. After a seven-minute version of The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer, Cash took a break and Carter recited a poem. Both concerts ended with the Greystone Chapel by Sherley. The second live wasn’t as fruitful as the first because the musicians were tired. Only two versions of songs from the second concert, Give My Love to Rose And I Got Stripeswere included on the LP.
The entire album is conceived as a tribute to prisoners, it was the first free live of a great artist in a prison. Cash gave one of the most intense performances of him and the performance reflects a total sympathy with his prison audience. Numerous songs are interrupted by the laughter of the artist who responds to the comments of the crowd and interacts with the prisoners. Only some of the cheer and shout sounds were overdubbed in the studio, such as the shouts after a verse in the track Folsom Prison Blues.
The release of the album At Folsom Prison it was prepared in four months. The disc, a double LP, was released on May 6, 1968. Columbia initially invested little in promoting the album and its single Folsom Prison Blues. The live version of the song still charted, but Robert Kennedy was assassinated in early June and many radio stations stopped playing it because of the line, “I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die,” considered in bad taste at the time. Columbia requested that the single be remixed with the phrase removed. Despite Cash’s protests, the single was edited and re-released. The new version became a hit, reaching number one on the country charts. The album also skyrocketed in the Charts: by August it had sold 300,000 copies, two months later it was certified gold by the RIAA for reaching 500,000 copies, it was certified triple platinum in 2003 for sales in excess of 3.4 million copies only in the United States.
At Folsom Prison was immediately acclaimed by critics with rave reviews. A success that relaunched Cash’s career, becoming the first in a series of live albums recorded in prisons that includes At San Quentin (1969), På Österåker (1973) and A Concert Behind Prison Walls (1976). Over the years it has been included in numerous charts of the best records of all time: for example, it appears at number 164 in the most updated list of Rolling Stone. In 2003, it was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. In 2006, the Time listed it among the 100 greatest albums of all time.