Saturday, January 13, 2018

Today in Music (1968): Johnny Cash recorded live at Folsom Prison

First posted 1/13/2013; updated 12/3/2020.

At Folsom Prison

Johnny Cash

Recorded: January 13, 1968

Released: May 1968

Charted: June 15, 1968

Peak: 13 US, 14 CW, 7 UK, 27 CN

Sales (in millions): 3.0 US, 0.1 UK, 3.2 world (includes US + UK)

Genre: country

Tracks: (Click for codes to singles charts.)

  1. Song (Writers) [time] (date of single release, chart peaks)
  2. Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash) [2:42] (6/1/68, #32 US, #39 AC, #1 CW)
  3. Busted (Harlan Howard) [1:25] (4/6/63, #13 CW) *
  4. Dark As the Dungeon (Merle Travis) [3:04] (2/15/64, #49 CW)
  5. I Still Miss Someone (Johnny Cash/Roy Cash Jr.) [1:38] (12/58, B-side of “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”)
  6. Cocaine Blues (T.J. Arnall) [3:01]
  7. 25 Minutes to Go (Shel Silverstein) [3:31]
  8. Orange Blossom Special (Ervin T. Rouse) [3:01] (2/13/65, #80 US, #3 CW)
  9. The Long Black Veil (Marijohn Wilkin/Danny Dill) [3:58]
  10. Send a Picture of Mother (Johnny Cash) [2:10]
  11. The Wall (Harlan Howard) [1:36]
  12. Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog (Jack H. Clement) [1:30]
  13. Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart (Jack H. Clement) [2:17]
  14. Joe Bean (Bud Freeman/Leon Pober) [2:25] *
  15. Jackson (with June Carter) (Billy Edd Wheeler,/Jerry Leiber) [3:12] (3/4/67, #2 CW)
  16. Give My Love to Rose (with June Carter) (Johnny Cash) [2:41] (9/16/57, #13 CW)
  17. I Got Stripes (Johnny Cash/Charlie Williams) [1:57] (8/3/59; #43 US, #4 CW)
  18. The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer (Johnny Cash/June Carter) [7:08] *
  19. Green, Green Grass of Home (Curly Putman) [2:29]
  20. Greystone Chapel (Glen Sherley) [6:02]

Chart information is for the original studio releases of the songs, except for “Folsom Prison Blues,” which was released as a live single from this album. Also, songs marked with an asterisk (*) were added as bonus tracks to the 1999 CD reissue.

Total Running Time: 55:56

The Players:

  • Johnny Cash (vocals, guitar, harmonica)
  • June Carter, Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers (additional vocals)
  • Carl Perkins, Luther Perkins (guitar)
  • Marshall Grant (bass)
  • W.S. “Fluke” Holland (drums)


4.569 out of 5.00 (average of 19 ratings)

Quotable: Cash “delivers the songs with the conviction of someone who has lived through it.” – Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide

Awards: (Click on award to learn more).

About the Album:

“Few albums come as close to capturing the darkness and rage that lays deep in Cash’s music, as well as the depth of his talent.” AMG Cash had an image of “an outlaw who always sided with the underdog.” ATI Marshall Grant, Cash’s bassist, said, “John had a real feeling for the down and out, for the prisoners…for anybody like that. He came from very humble beginnings in Arkansas.” ATI

“Undoubtedly the most significant prison album ever recorded,” ATI it was “a make-or-break moment in his waning career.” ATI He’d been in trouble with the law for smuggling pills across the border of Mexico, had an affair with June Carter which left some fans upset, and had a negative relationship with the press in general. ATI His record label had threatened to drop him and he’d even contemplated suicide. WP

How It Came About:

Recording a live album with an audience of felons didn’t seem like the blueprint for a career revival. However, in the mid-‘60s, it was difficult to get Cash into the studio and when he did go in, he was unprepared and uninspired. A live album was a way to get an album out of him. He was convinced it would be the shot in the arm his career needed. MA

Columbia Records wasn’t so sure about the idea. Drummer “Fluke” Holland echoed that sentiment. “I remember saying…it won’t sell enough to pay for tape.” RS The record company was finally persuaded and agreed to two live tapings from which the album would be assembled. It was recorded January 13, 1968 for an estimated 1,000 inmates UT at Folsom, a maximum-security prison outside Sacramento. It wasn’t Cash’s first time to perform at a prison. He’d performed at Huntsville State Prison in Texas in 1957. ABS He’d even performed before at Folsom, California’s second oldest prison, BL in November 1966 at the suggestion of Floyd Gressett. He preached at a church in Ventura which Cash sometimes attended and did prison outreach.

The Impact:

The resulting album took Cash to the top of the country charts and spent over two years on the Billboard album chart. It sold three million copies, becoming one of the biggest-selling country records of all time. RS He was embraced by the counterculture WP and became “an icon of cool.” ATI Grant said, “When this album came out, it just turned everything in our lives around. Our careers were turned around. John was becoming what he deserved.” RS

Uproxx’s Corbin Reiff called it “the definitive Johnny Cash album.” UT Photographer Jim Marshall, who was at Folsom to shoot the legendary performance, said he thought it was just as important as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced?, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. RS “It was the realness, the rawness, the honesty at Folsom that made the record important.” RS The album also brought attention to the need for prison reform. Cash felt strongly that the system was broken and not fixing anyone. First-time offenders and full-fledged killers were all mixed together.

The Performance:

The stage was set up in the cafeteria, right behind death row. Carl Perkins opened the show with “Blue Suede Shoes.” The Statler Brothers performed “Flowers on the Wall” and “This Old House” and provided backup vocals for Cash. June Carter joined Cash for duets on Jackson and Give My Love to Rose. ABS

Before Cash took the stage, Hugh Cherry, an L.A. disc jockey who served as the emcee, instructed the crowd not to clap, stand up, or even acknowledge Cash when he came out. However, once he stepped to the microphone and said, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” the group was told “to blow the roof off of this building. Whatever noise you ever made, let it be multipled tenfold.” RS

While the setlist included a few hits — Folsom Prison Blues, I Still Miss Someone, I Got Stripes, and the aforementioned “Jackson” and “Give My Love to Rose,” Cash focused more on songs “about prison, crime, murder, regret, loss, mother, God, and loneliness.” AMG Cash tweaked the lyrics of Cocaine Blues to reflect his narcotics arrest in 1965. UT He also performed Shel Silverstein’s 25 Minutes to Go about a man nearing his execution. In the context of a prison performance, they “lose some of their defiance and gain some sadness, particularly when they’re interrupted by announcements like, ‘88419 is wanted in reception.’” TL

Robert Hillburn, who was there that day writing for the Los Angeles Times, said, “He didn’t just do a greatest-hits show that day; he designed every song for that audience and their emotional needs.” ATI “This set is all about atmosphere. Live at the Grand Ole Opry this ain’t.” AZ

As a result, “Cash stimulates the audience’s emotions, which in turn stimulates his performance, especially since he delivers the songs with the conviction of someone who has lived through it.” AMG “Cash had the audience in the palm of his hands for the entire duration of the show.” ATI The prisoners were “visibly overjoyed,” ATI but “reluctant to respond too raucously [because] they feared reprisals from the guards.” ABS

It made for one of the album’s amusing moments. When one inmate started laughing during Dark As a Dungeon, Cash chuckled as well and then casually admonished him. The prisoner responded with “Oh, hell” which led Cash to say “I just wanted to tell you that this show is being recorded for an album released on Columbia Records so you can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘shit’ or anything like that.” ABS

“Folsom Prison Blues”

Cash wrote the song while serving in Germany with the U.S. Air Force in 1953. ABS He was inspired by watching Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, a 1951 crime drama. He recorded it for Sun Records in 1955 and it became one of his signature songs. The live version recorded at Folsom was released as a single in 1968 and topped the country charts. Hillburn said, “the live version was…much more dynamic. He had emotion singing in front of those prisoners and you can hear their affection for him.” UT

Some of Cash’s audience at the prison shows likely assumed he’d done hard time, probably because they took the lines “But I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die” literally. WP It has been called “one of the most iconic lines in country music history.” ABS Cash said, “I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that’s what came to mind.” ABS

However, Cash had never spent more than a few nights in jail (mainly in the drunk tank), but prisoners “related to him as being one of them” said W.S. Holland, Cash’s drummer. WP “Cash had a natural sympathy for men who gave in to their worst impulses.” TL

“Greystone Chapel”

The whole crew assembled the night before in a local motel and were even visited by then-California governor Ronald Reagan. Gressett played “Greystone Chapel,” a song written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley. It was about finding God in the prison chapel. Cash wrote down the words and rehearsed it with his band to perform it the next day. ATI It was the last song Cash performed, leaving his audience with the line “Inside the walls of prison my body may be/ But my Lord has set my soul free.” TL

Sherley didn’t know Cash was going to play his song and, according to Ventura Star-Free Press reporter Gene Beley, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier man alive.” ATI Sherley recorded an album in prison ATI and maintained correspondence with Cash. Although he was serving a potential life sentence, he was released in 1971 WP and joined Cash on the road. Sadly, he was fired when he threatened to kill one of the band members ATI and killed himself in 1978. Cash paid for the funeral. WP


The 1999 reissue added the songs “Busted,” “Joe Bean,” and “The Legend of John Henry.”

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