The Tuk Ten: Day 5 — Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison (Live)(1968)
Johnny Cash is rightly credited with being the father of outlaw country music. This is not the country music of today, the one that has been taken over by the Carrie Underwoods and the other improbably telegenic performers that populate and dominate the genre. Cash’s music, and the style he created, was the one of Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson. Cash exuded the idea that if you weren’t against the system, you were part of the system.
For anyone growing up in the 1970s or 1980s, the Johnny Cash that you saw on television was a somewhat different, somewhat mellower, softer version of the early Cash.
Being the father of the outlaw country music genre, however, was hardly the limit of his accomplishments. Cash was really one of the first true contrarian, anti-establishment rock stars. Yes, the 1950s brought us Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles, but it was Cash that exuded the darkness, the contempt for the system and for The Man that transcended musical styles. Even if you didn’t like country music, the casual observer knew The Man in Black. Cash played that role well. Part of the power of the image was his relative scarcity in the press. He wasn’t a person who spoke a lot. As a result, when he did speak, his words carried a lot more weight.
There was something about him though that people were drawn to; Cash was a center of gravity. That was well demonstrated with the release of American Recordings in 1994. American Recordings was Cash’s 81st album. His prodigious output, including the numerous posthumous releases of the recent years, leave behind a legacy worthy of exploration.
American Recordings is a snapshot into the kinds of diverse talent that was attracted to Cash: this record contains songs written by Cash himself of course, but also: Nick Lowe (The Beast in Me); Kris Kristofferson (Why Me Lord), Glenn Danzig (Thirteen); Leonard Cohen (Bird on a Wire); Tom Waits (Down by the Train), and Loudon Wainwright III (The Man Who Couldn’t Cry).
For all of the extraordinary moments in Cash’s recording career, there is one recording that stands out above all as the catalyst for what Cash ultimately became. That record is At Folsom Prison (Live), which was recorded during two performances in 1968 at Folsom County Prison in Folsom, California.
There are times when a performer goes into a situation expecting nothing, or not knowing what to expect. We have all had those low expectations. I can only wonder what was going through the minds of Cash and his band as they began the performances in Dining Hall 2 at Folsom that day. Was it clear to them that they were caught in a truly historical moment? Did they have any inkling that the recording would become as successful artistically and commercially as it did? One can only imagine.
The recording produced that day is transcendent.
While studio albums are an artistic medium, a truly great live record only happens rarely. At Folsom Prison (Live) is one of those truly great live recordings. Earlier, I profiled Jimi Hendrix’s Live at Monterey, incidentally also recorded in 1968 — what a great year that must have been! — and a lot of that analysis holds true for At Folsom Prison (Live). While the musical styles are totally different, both records capture the energy of the performer’s interaction with the audience.
Listening to these songs, the electricity in the air on that day is readily apparent. All of the typical and unpredictable variables of live performance are present. But, also evident is the tension in the air that anything could happen with the inmates at any time. The audience’s interjections into the songs give the recording an edge that can’t be contrived or manufactured. Without giving too much away, there is a conversation between Cash and the audience in the middle of Dark as the Dungeon that illustrates this. In between songs, Cash jokes to the audience, “..want to tell you that this show is being recorded for an album for release on Columbia Records, and you can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘shit’ or anything like that….” The audience roars in laughter with approval.
Cash smartly kept in some of the announcements from the prison warden. Immediately after the final chords of Cocaine Blues, the Warden gets on the microphone to announce:
“These men have receptions: Matlock, A50632, Battshelter A39879. They have receptions.”
After the announcement, something unintelligible is said in the audience, followed by laughter, and Cash simply says “I know,” and the set continues.
This is a live record that documents the performers and the audience and the bond between them. It was a strong bond indeed. There are some misfires in the performance. But, as a document of the moment in time that outlaw country was born, this album shines and should be in your collection.
Folsom Prison Blues
Dark as the Dungeon
I Still Miss Someone
25 Minutes to Go
Orange Blossom Special
The Long Black Veil
Send a Picture of Mother
Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog
Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart
Give My Love to Rose
I Got Stripes
Green, Green Grass of Home
Bryan Tuk is a author, attorney and musician. His recent book: risk, create, change: a survival guide for startups and creators, is available on Amazon. You can find out more about Bryan’s writings and music at http://riskcreatechange.com
His law practice represents clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey and focuses on arts & entertainment law matters, copyrights, trademarks, nonprofit organizations, startups and entrepreneurs. You can learn about Bryan’s law practice at http://tuklaw.com.