“I hear that train a-comin’…” hearing (or reading) those words probably conjures the voice of Johnny Cash in your mind. After all, “Folsom Prison Blues” is the Cash song for millions of people. Even people who don’t like country music don’t mind cranking up the Man in Black. When they do, it’s usually that song. These days, the live cut of the tune is the one everyone goes to. He recorded that, and the rest of At Folsom Prison, 54 years ago today.
At Folsom Prison: Johnny Cash’s Redemption
The Man in Black first released “Folsom Prison Blues” as a single in 1955 and it became a top-five hit. Then, he recorded it as part of his 1968 Folsom Prison set. That live cut gave the classic tune a new life. It quickly climbed to the top of the Billboard singles chart. In much the same way, At Folsom Prison revived Johnny Cash’s career and gave him a new lease on life.
By the time Johnny Cash took the stage at Folsom Prison in 1968, his career was on the rocks. Like George Jones, booze and pills caused him to miss shows. When he did show up, he wasn’t exactly knocking performances out of the park. The deep, dark spiral of addiction will do that to you.
However, when he stepped up to the mic in the Folsom cafeteria and said, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” he did so with clear eyes and a clear head. It was the return of the Cash that fans loved. He was witty, funny, and on fire.
Cash’s Prison Gigs
The 1968 Folsom Prison show wasn’t Johnny Cash’s first time playing the Big House. It wasn’t even his first time playing Folsom. He had been doing it for years. His daughter, Tara Cash-Schwoebel spoke to NPR about her father’s love for playing prisons. She said it all started when Cash was stationed in Germany and saw the crime noir film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. “I think that’s where all of this kind of grew from. He was just so moved by the film.”
Tara went on to say, “I think it really spoke to his rebellious side. He really had a passion for standing up for these people who were locked up, you know, and treated so poorly.”
Johnny Cash’s Legacy Lives on
Many country music fans know that Merle Haggard watched Johnny Cash play in San Quentin nearly a decade before the At Folsom Prison session. That performance inspired Haggard to turn his life around and start a country music career. However, Cash’s legacy lives on at Folsom as well.
In 2018, NPR caught up with a Folsom inmate named Andrew Clayton. At that time he was the lead guitarist for one of the facility’s in-house bands. He wasn’t a country fan, but that didn’t stop him from admiring Cash and his legacy. “Just the fact that he played here, and I’m playing here. I feel like I’m part of something special.”