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2023 Albums Thing #064 - Johnny Cash “At San Quentin”

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Johnny Cash’s second live album and second recorded at a prison. San Quentin had been contacted at the same time as Folsom but hadn’t responded as quickly. This concert was filmed to be included in a documentary made by Granada TV in the UK about Johnny and his prison concerts. 

It’s a shorter album than “Folsom Prison” (10 tracks against 16) but to my ears it’s a better set and Johnny is more engaged with the audience. For a shorter album it’s therefore strange that they put 2 versions of the same song on here, one after the other to start Side 2, but it does show what a good time singer and audience were having and I’m sure playing the newly written “San Quentin” in front of all those guards and wardens and watching the prisoners reaction to it gave Johnny a kick.

Hey what are you guys drinking in those tall purple cups ? What is that rot gut stuff ?

This album was recorded on 24 February 1969 so just a year or so after Folsom. In that time Cash’s long time guitar player Luther Perkins (that was Luther knocking out those chikka-boom guitar lines on Johnny’s greatest hits) had passed away and this is referred to in the set. Cash also mentions to the audience that the gig is being recorded for the UK (he says England) and him being told you gotta do this song and that song and how that’s not how it’s gonna be, he’s there for the prisoners and then asks for requests before bursting into “I Walk The Line”. The famous image of an angry-looking Cash giving the middle finger gesture to a camera comes from this performance. It happened when he got upset that the TV cameras were intruding between him and the audience.

I’ve been here 3 times before. I think I understand a little bit how you feel about some things, it’s none of my business how you feel about some other things and I don’t give a damn how you feel about some other things

June Cash joins him on “Darling Companion” along with Sun Records stablemate Carl Perkins. Side 2 has those two runs thru “San Quentin” with the prisoners cheering lustily at appropriate lines (“San Quentin you've been living hell to me”, “San Quentin I hate every inch of you” and “San Quentin may you rot and burn in hell” eliciting particularly enthusiastic responses), an absolutely rollicking “A Boy Named Sue” (the line “My name is Sue, how do you do? Now you gonna die" raising enough of a cheer to suggest there may be a few murderers in the crowd who particularly enjoyed their “trade” !), the gospel tune “Peace In The Valley” calms the atmosphere a little and everything wraps up with “Folsom Prison Blues”.

There’s a lot of dialogue on this album. It gives you an inkling about the sort of person Johnny Cash was and definitely lets you know how the inmates felt about Johnny, and the steam being blown off by the audience adds to the whole atmosphere. Most reviews you’ll read put “At Folsom Prison” ahead of this one but to me this is much the better record. Hey, we’ve all got different ears right ?

San Quentin - https://youtu.be/ARI42-dv1Mw

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