Once a criminal, always a criminal, huh? Is that what everybody thinks? Cause if that's the case then I might as well just march my ass back to jail, where it's nice and warm. I'm gonna spend the ***in' winter there getting drunk and stoned with good dope
--Ricky, Sunnyvale Trailer Park
So yeah, jail is fun. Apparently. I guess this is good for me because I'm one of those types who think about life in jail constantly and how I would adjust to such a 'vacation' from society. No joking, I've plagued myself with all sorts of inane questions: Would I keep my cell tidy? How many reps will I plan do on the jailyard benchpress every morning? Will I like the food? Whose gonna be my bitc
h? What will I do for cigarettes? No really, What kind of acts will I do
for cigarettes?And I don't even smoke.
Maybe jail isn't really fun after all. And in that case, I should be grateful that the closest thing I'll get to such an experience (so far) is At Folsom Prison
To be blunt, Johnny Cash performed at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. Of course, I could trail on and on needlessly and pompously trying to suggest the sociological significance of 1968 (ie. Civil Rights movements, Vietnam) and how such a symbolic year ties in with Cash's own run-ins with authority. Yet in truth, 1968 was more of a year of redemption for the man in black. Cash was beginning to reassemble his tattered career of drug abuse, depression, stress, arrests, and marital strife with a new-found sense of religion, peace and empathy, many of which were directed towards the prisoners of Folsom in this timeless LP. Really, not the kind of stuff one would associate with 1968 unless you are one of those tutti-fruttis from San Francisco, in which that case, 1968 was the Summer of Love. However, Cash being 'Cash the man' immortalized as the biggest bad-ass
in American popular music rewarded these rejects of society with one hell-raising concert that stimulated the most primal nerves of arguably some of the most hardened captives in the USA.
k you San Francisco.
And yes, much of the basis for At Folsom Prison
stems from one of Cash's first, and to-date biggest, hits, Folsom Prison Blues
, coercing most people to figure that Cash was actually a prisoner himself at the famed incarceration centre. Yet in reality, Cash penned the tune as a young wingmen stationed in West Germany (how Un-American!) after watching the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison
. The song itself opens up the album and as one can hear the rowdy melodies echo through prison hall and into the roaring graces of the inmates, the raucous intensity and inherent grief of "Folsom Prison Blues" inevitably sets the tone of the album: bittersweet and a tad depressing, but strangely upbeat. Cash had stated that with this performance he had wished to derive laughter from men who had forgotten how to laugh, and judging by the intense artist-crowd interaction that that this album showcases, Cash not only achieved this, but as well had struck some of the most intense feelings of this hardened gang of criminals. Lyrics in "Folsom Prison Blues" that depict the ominous torture of hearing a rolling train in the distance where rich people are probably drinkin' coffee and smoking cigars are destined to trigger the deepest desires and lamentations of Cash's audience on this LP. In a much more un-romanticized way, SPIN
-doctor Chuck Klosterman has argued that these very lyrics are just merely conveying the fact that Cash doesn't care about freedom; he just wants some goddam coffee. Even then, Cash is playing the role of a steel-nerved bad-ass
who is so hard, he prefers caffeine to freedom.
Even then, Johnny Cash still has had his fair share of run-ins in the law to the point where such role-playing isn't even necessary when one simply browses through some random Cash trivia. Hell, Cash to this date remains the only person in U.S. history to be sued by the federal government for starting a forest fire, one that partly wiped out a bit of a wildlife conservation in California. The fire was triggered when an extremely stoned Cash left his camper with a defective exhaust to go fishing. I mean, how awesome is that? Why that tidbit of Man in Black history was omitted in the 2005 biopic Walk the Line
is beyond me.
But enough is enough, despite the legend status of this album, the sociological significance, the marketing risk involved, At Folsom Prison
is simply a great collection of songs performed live that no doubt justifies his subsequent return to popularity as a musician due to its resulting (and continued) success. Much of this not only relies on a choice collection of songs and the sheer level of audience participation, but on a musically aesthetic level, it sounds great. Cash's backing band pumps its way through the songs like a well-greased train employing that signature 'boom-chicka-boom' rhythm and subtle Memphis finesse. Country standard Orange Blossom Special
and I Still Miss Someone
are key tracks in this regard, effortlessly displaying the slick and confident tones of a revamped country act. Elsewhere, June Carter Cash makes a brief appearances on the tracks Jackson
and Give My Love to Rose
and the harmonization and vocal interplay between her and Cash produce some of the most uplifting and catchy melodies amidst a sea of debauchery. Simply gorgeous.
Conversely, what would a live album be if it didn't pride itself in the sheer rawness of the said performance? Well, At Folsom Prison
is chock full of it. Cash cracks jokes and converses with the inmates and attempts to drink prison water. Hooting, yelling and cheering periodically disrupt his songs, to the point where Cash loses his train of thought and trails off in the midst of a tune (Dark as the Dungeon
). Prison Wardens occasionally make announcements over the flat and bleak intercom, further reminding the prisoners of where they are. Most importantly, the natural level of reverb due to the acoustics of the prison hall in which the performance took place perfectly reflects the desolation of the venue.
In tune with these attributes, Cash also delivers some excellent loud and rowdy numbers. Cocaine Blues
is a definite highlight of the performance and an excellent display of outlaw lyricism. The first in particular kicks ass
Early one mornin' while makin' the rounds,
I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down;
I went right home and I went to bed;
I stuck that lovin' 44 beneath my head.
Additionally, 25 Minutes to Go
is like a momentum-gaining rock tumbling down a hill that reflects the last moments of a man on death row in a manner so chilling and darkly humorous at the same time to the point where you don't know whether to frown or grin. Cash also implies this same bizarre and black brand of humor that connects so well with the inmates on Dirty Old Egg Suckin' Dog
and Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart
Filling a live album from prison with these songs could well be an easy task, but Cash also balances the performance with a set of slower and more introspective songs. Many of them are just Cash and his guitar and they work beautifully as the somber melodies provide a rewarding change of pace and tone, not to mention that some of them feature his best work. Cash's rendition of Long Black Veil
is one. Sparse acoustic guitar strumming wonderfully accent lonesome crooning exemplified by Cash's trademark smooth baritone. Joe Bean
derives similar emphatic emotions of youthful innocence trapped in a cruel and uncompromising world. And how else would a song like The Wall
be able to emit the same emotions of desperation and yearning if it didn't channel the light acoustic jangle and Cash's laid-back timbre?
Is there anything bad that can be said about an album this revered and so seemingly perfect? Well, not bad, but there are some minor flaws that bar it from being a perfect album. Yes rawness is definitely a rewarding factor for this album, but at some points Cash's voice seems to strain under the pressure of performance. Elsewhere, the interruptions by the crowd are cool, but they progressively get agitating and cloud up the tunes. And sometimes the acoustics go a little flat in places. Simply put, the rough nature of this album is great, but at times can undermine its overall value.
More importantly, some might charge that the songs can be neatly divided into two categories: rowdy and intense songs that glorify outlaw life and on the other hand somber tunes of regret that contradict the former. As a result there seems to be little variation of potential moods among the setlist. Nonetheless the songs despite this variety remain strong.
The final track is Greystone Chapel
, a song written by Glen Shirley, an inmate at Folsom Prison at the time. Cash heard the song for the first time the night before the performance and learned it in order to play it for the whole prison the next day. The lyrics beautifully reflect the desire to find redemption in the harshest of environments:
You wouldn't think that God had a place here at Folsom
But he saved the souls of many lost men
Now there's greystone chapel here at Folsom
Stands a hundred years all made of granite rock
It takes a ring of keys to move here at Folsom
But the door to the House of God is never locked
With a slight gospel tinge, the song is the ultimate bond between Cash and his audience, who despite their crimes and misdemeanors, guilty or innocent, gave their undivided attention to a free man who was once among their ranks. In a way it's a touching finish, but as the audio tape captures the men filing out and back to their cold cells, one might get the suspicion that maybe jail isn't so fun after all.
Jail used to be so ***ing cool and now it is big-time ***ed up. There's hardly any drinking here anymore, you can't get good dope, and they banned smoking from the ***ing boys they took smoking away from us, that's ***ed. And once I quit smoking, you gotta find stuff to do, so I gotta play sports but all they let you do is ***ing play bang-ming-ton.
--Ricky, Sunnyvale Trailer Park
At least Johnny Cash never had to play badminton.
- Cocaine Blues
- Orange Blossom Special
- Long Black Veil
- 25 Minutes to Go
- Folsom Prison Blues