Johnny Cash: Fifty Years After Folsom and San Quentin

Written By: MaryBeth Barber

Photograph by Brittneydawn Cook

Johnny Cash’s Concerts Inside

The recorded concerts were not the first prison venues for “The Man in Black,” as he was later nicknamed. Cash headlined dozens of prison concerts in at least ten states, with a large number of them in his adopted home state (at the time) of California. The first prison Cash performed in was in Texas, but his second was San Quentin State Prison on New Year’s Day in 1958. “Gigantic Revue Heralds New Year” reads the front-page headline of The San Quentin News for January 9, 1958. “Three Thousand San Quentin Men Cheer Stars — And Johnny Cash,” reads the subhead. The prison had a history of welcoming the new year with a seven-hour entertainment extravaganza on January 1. That year, Cash stole the show. Fellow country-music star Merle Haggard, serving time at San Quentin for petty crimes, said in his autobiography that the enthusiasm for Cash overwhelmed the other acts, including women dancing and a seventeen- piece jazz band. Haggard and Cash later raised the ire of entertainment executives on the network broadcast “Johnny Cash Show.” According to Haggard in My House of Memories: An Autobiography, Cash had Haggard guest star on the family-friendly live program, where Haggard complimented Cash on the 1958 concert. When Cash said that he didn’t remember Haggard in the band, Haggard bantered back, “I was in the audience!” This interchange lives in Haggard’s autobiography but not necessarily in the video record, as online versions of the show have an awkward cut just where this exchange would likely have taken place. Cash spent the years following that San Quentin New Year’s performance moving between touted venues like Carnegie Hall, where he bombed after losing his voice due to excessive drug use, and incarceration facilities where he appeared to thrive. Even after the success of the Folsom and San Quentin albums, he continued to play for inmates. These events included a show at Soledad State Prison in 1980, where his performance was likely an enhancement to the successful immersive arts and music programs for inmates that was in full force at the time.

Multiple Folsom Concerts

Cash’s first appearance inside the granite walls of Folsom State Prison took place about eighteen months before the recorded concert. “Folsom Inmates Brave Chill for ‘Friend’ Cash,” blares reporter Art McGinn’s headline in the Sacramento Bee on November 9, 1966. Additional photos of the 1966 concert taken by the Sacramento Union, now in the special collections at the University of California, Davis, some show the prison’s historic religious facility in the background. The edifice was immortalized two years later as the last song on the Folsom album. “Greystone Chapel” was written by inmate Glen Sherley and quickly learned by Cash the day before, as he and his band mates rehearsed at the Hotel El Rancho Resort in West Sacramento. The excitement of the Folsom concert wasn’t just for the inmates and the prison officials. During a rehearsal break at the El Rancho, Cash and the band were visited by then Governor Ronald Reagan. Reagan coincidentally won his election two years previous on the exact same day Cash was on the Folsom Prison yard in November of 1966.

Recording Challenges

Performing in a prison was one thing, but recording for an album was another, especially in the days before digital technology. Cash’s idea of a live album at a prison was well out of the comfort zone for both the prison staff and the record companies in the late 1960s. This was especially difficult, as the two prisons of choice were at the highest security level, and the technical needs for recording were intricate and complex. Cash had advocates who may have helped bring his idea to life. His personal pastor, the Reverend Floyd Gressett of Ventura, counselled death-row inmates in the early 1960s in San Quentin. Gressett was also close to Coach Lloyd Kelly, the Folsom prison recreation director. It was Gressett who brought Sherley’s early rendition of the song “The Greystone Chapel” to Cash, according to the inmate newspaper The Folsom Observer in the February 1968 write up of the concert. Cash also had to convince the music industry of the brilliance of his prison album plan. He says in his autobiography that the record industry officials were more difficult to convince than California’s Department of Corrections. But in the end, a change in leadership at the record company led to an opening, and Cash got his date at Folsom: January 13, 1968.

Prison-Reform Advocacy

An online exhibit at the California State Library website highlights some of the prison reform advocacy from Cash, featuring links to images of his visits with no less than six U.S. presidents. The site also links to congressional testimony from a session where Cash introduced lawmakers to former inmates to hear their stories. The musician sat in front of Congressional members just at the peak of his fame after the Folsom and San Quentin live con — cert albums. Archival video shows him trying to redirect President Reagan towards a discussion about reform. Reagan seems to be preoccupied with a certain Central American conflict instead. Cash wrote in his autobiography that he prayed with President Carter. The concert for President Nixon became prime-time fodder when Nixon publicly requested that Cash play two highly controversial songs — Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” and Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac.” Both songs may have originally been conceived as satire, but out of context they were interpreted by many people as highly insulting to particular communities, especially protesters of the Vietnam War and the disadvantaged recipients of Great Society social service programs. In later years, Cash was adamant that he chose different music for the concert for Nixon because he didn’t know the other songs well enough for a presidential concert. Instead he played “What is Truth” with a very anti-war second verse, “The Man in Black,” again anti-war, with a nudge toward Vietnam with the line “Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.” His finale was “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a saga of the real-life Ira Hayes, a young Native American who raised the flag at Iwo Jima but who found the poverty and post-war trauma to be too much and died young from alcoholism. A recent documentary, ReMastered: Tricky Dick and the Man in Black on Netflix, uses news footage to show just how explosive these interchanges would have been in the American mindset at the time. The question, “What will Cash play?” became a political hot-button and six-o’clock news story. Whether Cash was honest in that he didn’t have the time or talent to adjust to the other songs for himself, or whether he purposely played music that would have been a subtle support for the leftist notions at the time, is something he took to his grave. But he capitalized on the attention at the time for discussions of the prison-reform advocacy issue. His concert for Nixon took place just about the same time he testified in front of Congress. “I have seen and heard of things at some of the concerts that would chill the blood of the average citizen,” Cash told the Subcommittee on National Penitentiaries. “But I think possibly the blood of the average citizen needs to be chilled in order for public apathy and conviction to come about because right now we have 1972 problems and 1872 jails….People have got to care in order for prison reform to come about.”

Kinship with the Convicts

Cash was often mistaken for an ex-convict, but he never served time in prison. His experience with incarceration was basically an evening or two in local jails, typically to recover from intoxication. His lyrics made people think he was incarcerated, especially in Folsom. But the genesis of the song came from watching the crime noir thriller Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison while he was in the Army in Germany. The mistaken impression was propelled by various mug shots of Cash that would make the rounds, including one that was likely a prank published in the Folsom Observer in April of 1967. That he was never convicted of a criminal offense was likely a twist of luck and fame. He struggled with addiction most of his life, and wrote in his book that he wavered between acting out inappropriately and apologizing to those he loved for his behavior. One of the lower moments was in 1965, when he was held responsible for starting a forest fire in California’s Los Padres National Forest a fire that likely killed dozens of the already endangered California condors. Cash wrote that his back-talking to the judge was not his finest moment. In the end he paid the State of California over $80,000, the parallel to about three quarters of a million dollars in 2019.

On the Inside

Today The individuals who find themselves in California’s prisons today are more likely to be fans of hip-hop or Latin musicians rather than a country star like Cash. Artists like Common (hip-hop) and Los Tigres del Norte (norteño-style music from Mexico) have recently entertained inmates, and enhance their visits with workshops for inmate musicians. The state’s correctional agency has received plenty of requests for Cash-related celebratory concerts at Folsom. But most inquiries focused on the prison as a location setting rather than as a rehabilitative process for the inmates. A re-boot of the concert from fifty years ago has not come to fruition so far, as the correctional agency has a policy to not let prisons turn into location backdrops to promote a commercial product or production. Artistic events and activities must have a rehabilitate purpose. As the decades passed, Cash stopped doing prison concerts. His autobiography hints at personal triumphs such as filming his Christian-themed “Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus” in Israel, and difficulties including his continual struggles with addiction. Cash’s writing hints at emotional exhaustion in his efforts to help and understand the individuals who end up incarcerated. “I’m out of answers,” he said in Cash the Autobiography from 1997, after explaining the plight of three robbers who terrorized his family one evening at his home in Jamaica. The young men — who Cash thought might have been neighborhood teens died at the hands of local law enforcement days later. Even after being in a scenario where he and his family’s lives could have been lost, Cash’s heart went out to the culprits. “My only certainties are that I grieve for desperate young men and the societies that produce and suffer so many of them, and I felt that I knew those boys,” he wrote. “We had a kinship, they and I. I knew how they thought, I knew how they needed. They were like me.”

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