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2023 Albums Thing #063 - Johnny Cash “At Folsom Prison”

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Johnny Cash had a hit with the single “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 (#4 on the US Country charts). The song was written after he watched the film “Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison” in 1953. Following the success of the single he would regularly receive letters from prisoners asking him to perform at their prisons. Cash was a great campaigner on all manner of issues (prisoners welfare, Native American rights, Civil rights). He was also something of a bad boy being not unfamiliar with the inside of a jail cell and had something of an affinity with the incarcerated. He performed his first prison concert in 1957 at Huntsville State Prison and continued to perform for prisoners regularly. This all added up to a desire to record a live album in a prison.

In 1967 Cash’s career was on the slide following years of substance abuse, the hits had dried up. The man in charge of producing his output for Columbia Records changed that year. The new man was Bob Johnston, something of a maverick who had no problem with rocking the boat. Cash pitched the idea of recording a prison album and Johnston contacted both San Quentin and Folsom prisons to suggest the idea. Folsom was the first to respond.

During rehearsals for the concert Cash and his band were visited by California Governor Ronald Reagan who expressed his encouragement. They were also attended by Reverend Floyd Gressett who counselled inmates at Folsom and helped setup the concert. One of the reasons for the rehearsals (something Cash didn’t indulge too often) was to learn the song "Greystone Chapel”. It had been written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley (who was serving a sentence for armed robbery). Sherley recorded a version of the song, which he passed on to Reverend Gressett via the prison's recreation director and Cash had decided to put it in his set.

The gigs happened on 13th January 1968 with Cash and his band, The Tennessee Three, playing two sets, one at 9.40am and a second at 12.40pm. The idea was they would have 2 sets to choose from if anything was unsatisfactory about either. He was expected to open the sets with “I Walk the Line” but instead opened with “Folsom Prison Blues” which must have delighted the prison guards and officials !

The record opens with Cash’s famous intro of “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” and straight into a rapturously received “Folsom Prison Blues”. JC is engaging all the way through, breaking into inappropriate giggles during a couple of the more serious songs, and obviously has an easy rapport with the prisoners. The set is a mix of tough songs like the opener and “Cocaine Blues, Gospel songs and some more sentimental tunes like “Send A Picture Of Mother” And “Give My Love To Rose” all set in those simple arrangements the Tennessee Three were so great at. All this is interrupted by announcements by the prison guards.

It’s a wonderful document of an historic show (feels like I’ve said that before about something) but  honestly, I much prefer the “San Quentin” album, which many have said is inferior to this one (contrary, Moi ?). But hey! It’s Johnny Cash so it’s all good.

Greystone Chapel - https://youtu.be/fGMVRoXelNs

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