courtesy Sacremento Union Archives

Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” turns 50

The beloved album is just as relevant and compassionate as it was at its release.

I think it’s a damn shame when people say they listen to all types of music “except for rap and country.” Admittedly, we hear this banality less and less often as rap becomes ever more popular, which is a positive change of pace (I’m all for anything that isn’t bland Imagine Dragons-esque pop-rock that can capture the cultural zeitgeist).

And yet, I feel like some sort of appreciation for country or folk music has been completely left by the wayside. I know that country music, especially non pop-country stuff, has a waning place in the average college student’s life, but good music is good music, you know? If you’re hesitant about country music, though, Johnny Cash is a pretty excellent beginning point, especially his live recordings.

Cash released his first live album, “At Folsom Prison,” in May, 1968. If you’re doing the math with me at home, that means that this album had its 50th anniversary earlier this year. Looking back at the half-century since this album has been released, it’s easy to see the massive influence it’s had on popular culture, musical or otherwise.

Not only did it popularize the concept of the live album itself, it brought a ton of political attention to prison reform. The album itself is charming in its barebones approach: Johnny Cash, performing and recording for free for the prisoners of Folsom Prison, just plays his tracklist and chats with the prisoners. At one point, Cash warns his prisoners that, because the concert was being “put on wax,” they “can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘shit’” without risking the recording.

“Folsom Prison Blues,” a song originally written in the ‘50s that inspired Cash to tour for free at prisons, is a definite centerpiece to the album. It has an iconic guitar riff, a thumping bass and a really excellent vocal melody. I’d venture to guess that, if you’ve heard just one Cash song, it’s this one. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, honestly. It’s a timeless track, and it’s emblematic of the sort of tone the album tries to set: a witty, spirited delivery outlining lyrics empathetic to whomever Cash perceives as the underdog.

Cash’s empathy comes through especially within the album’s curated setlist. Cash has handpicked tracks from his discography to which he knows his captive audience can relate. The first half of the tracklist is heavy on songs about the woes of a prison sentence and how prisoners feel ostracized from the general public.

Cash had apparently spent some months of his adult life in a prison, so take that as you will. Does he necessarily understand the exact experience of someone serving a lifetime sentence at Folsom Prison? Probably not, but his audience responds positively to his attempts to relate, which I think points to some amount of genuineness from Cash. There’s this point during “The Wall” where Cash interrupts his own song to call prison wardens bastards, and the subsequent howling of the crowd is all captured on the record.

Nowhere is Cash more sensitive to his audience than while singing “Greystone Chapel,” which was written by Folsom prisoner Glen Shirley and sung by Cash for the first time just before this recording. It’s a solemn little number about finding God in prison, and while I don’t think it’s a stand-out track from the album, it’s pretty functionally fascinating: Cash is singing the words of the prisoners right back at them.

The second half of the album focuses on themes of home and religion, especially represented as grands goals or as through-lines to a ballad. This is particularly seen in “Jackson” and “Green, Green Grass of Home,” both of which are about trying to place oneself somewhere that could be considered “home.” It’s no real surprise that Cash would incorporate these motifs of longing and displacement into a setlist created for prisoners.

Chord progressions and vocal melodies are definitely similar throughout the album, and certain tracks do get lost in that familiarity. Gun to my head, I probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the tunes of “Joe Bean” or “Busted” if someone were to hum one of them.

While some tracks don’t stick out, like the aforementioned “Greystone Chapel,” some songs are completely stirring upon first listen. “25 Minutes to Go” followed me around for weeks after I gave it a try and listened to Cash detail the story of a man about to be hanged, all the way through his death-throes. It’s a haunting track, and was probably the reason I kept returning to the album.

“At Folsom Prison” revitalized Johnny Cash’s career in the mid-to-late ‘60s, and also I really like it, if that means as much to you as it does to me. I think it’s completely appropriate to call this album a cultural landmark, so if you’ve never sat down and just given “At Folsom Prison” a thorough listening, I don’t think I could recommend it more, despite its occasional mediocre sections. My absolute highlights include “Folsom Prison Blues” (of course), the macabre “25 Minutes to Go,” “Send a Picture of Mother” and “Cocaine Blues.”

Cash at the live recording of the album. photo by Dan Poush

Post Author: Emily Every