“He takes a $1.98 tape into Folsom Prison and comes out with an album.”
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”On January 13, 1968, Johnny Cash played two concerts at Folsom State Prison with June Carter, Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and his band, the Tennessee Three. At Folsom Prison, drawn mainly from the first show, is often ranked as one of the best albums of all time and turned Cash’s career around. Reporter Gene Beley covered the concert and recorded some songs from the audience.
Cash had been playing in prisons since the late 1950s; Merle Haggard saw several of his concerts from the audience at San Quentin. The 1968 concerts were the second time Cash had played at Folsom. He’d done a show there in November 1966. Reverend Floyd Gressett arranged the 1966 concert and gave Cash the tape of “Greystone Chapel” in 1968.
The 1951 movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison inspired Cash to write his 1955 single “Folsom Prison Blues” when he was serving in Germany in the US Air Force. The song’s melody and lyrics are very similar to Gordon Jenkins‘ “Crescent City.”
Cash’s prison albums started a trend that included B.B. King’s Live in Cook County Jail and Live at San Quentin, John Lee Hooker’s Live At Soledad Prison, Little Milton’s Live at Westville Prison and the Sex Pistols’ Live at Chelmsford Top Security Prison, Thom Chacon’s Live at Folsom Prison, Tracy Nelson’s Live from Cell Block D, and Charles Manson’s Live from San Quentin [AKA White Rasta]. Freddy Fender’s Recorded Inside Louisiana State Prison is a fake live-in-prison album. “If it is a prison recording, then where, praytell, are the prisoners?” AMG
Men singing at women’s prisons was a trend-within-a-trend, with The Moments’ Live at the New York State Women’s Prison, Sonny George’s Live At The Tennessee Prison For Women, Mack Vickery’s Live At The Alabama Women’s Prison. Leona Williams reversed the gender roles with her San Quentin’s First Lady (with Merle Haggard, who’d done time there).
At the time of Cash’s concert, Folsom was a model prison. “Administrators came from New York and Texas to find out how Folsom kept its violence so low and its inmates from coming back.” It’s much worse now.