Johnny Cash's Concert At Folsom Marks Its 40th Anniversary

It is one of those dates that is embedded in music history - and should be embedded in American history, if it is not already. January 13, 1968, the day that Johnny Cash and his crew - June Carter (two months before their wedding), Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and the Tennessee Three (guitarist Luther Perkins, bassist Marshall Grant, drummer W.S. "Fluke" Holland), rolled into northern California's notorious maximum security lockup and gave a performance that changed Cash's career arc and the future of popular music. Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, the LP issued on Columbia Records the following May, became a cultural benchmark in the midst of the single most tumultuous year in American history since the end of World War II. It was more than a record album - it was the turning point for a generation.

That epic day at Folsom celebrates its 40th anniversary on Tuesday, January 13, 2009.

The broad popular acceptance of the original Folsom Prison - by country fans, hippies and hillbillies, the Rolling Stone and FM radio population, and liberal urbanites - turned Johnny Cash's life around. Buoyed by its #1 country single title tune, the LP spent 92 weeks on the country chart (where it was #1 for 4 weeks) and 122 weeks on the pop side, was certified platinum, and chosen CMA Album of the Year. At the next Grammy Awards (in March 1969), "Folsom Prison Blues" won for Best Country Vocal, Male, and Johnny won Best Liner Notes. It set the stage (along with the follow-up success of Johnny Cash At San Quentin in 1969) for ABC television to offer him the prime time variety show series that catapulted him to superstar status. Over and above this recognition, for the next decade he was an outspoken advocate for prison reform.

The energy and excitement of the Folsom Prison recordings are all about Johnny Cash's relationship with those prison inmates and their regard for him, unfounded or not, as one of their own. He encouraged them to be uninhibited for the recording, and their raw spirit lifts every minute higher. Of the nearly 20 songs Cash performed at each of the two shows that day, with and without June, no less than half of them addressed his understanding of prison life. These included "Folsom Prison Blues" (with its memorable line, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die"), Harlan Howard's "Busted" (via Ray Charles), Merle Travis' "Dark As A Dungeon, " the gallows humor of Shel Silverstein's "25 Minutes To Go, " the Everly Brothers' "I'm Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail, " Mary Buck Wilkin's "The Long Black Veil, " T.J. Arnall's "Cocaine Blues, " Johnny's own "I Got Stripes, " and Curly Putnam's "Green, Green Grass Of Home."

The 40th anniversary of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison was celebrated late last year with the release of a new box set on Columbia/Legacy, a division of Sony Music Entertainment. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition is a revealing three-disc (2 CD+DVD) close-up of that day and presents for the first time the entire unvarnished 65-minute first show on disc one - expletives intact for the first time, and with seven previously unissued tracks; and the entire 75-minute second show on disc two, with 24 previously unissued tracks (out of 26). It's topped off with a new documentary DVD about Folsom - featuring exclusive footage from inside Folsom, interviews with Merle Haggard, Rosanne Cash, Marty Stuart, and former inmates who witnessed the concert, and unpublished photography by Jim Marshall.

"Recorded days before the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, " writes scholar Michael Streissguth in the box set's essay, "and a few months before the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the album's performances and Cash-penned liner notes urged listeners to remember the caged men, much like King shone the spotlight on disenfranchised blacks and the voiceless poor. The album also tapped into the yearnings of late sixties music fans around the world who wanted from their music more viscosity, more depth, more reality, more rebellion. Folsom Prison gave it to them - songs performed with unrelenting passion, a performer who would let nobody stand in his way, and a look at a failing prison system."

write your comments about the article :: 2009 Jazz News :: home page