At Folsom Prison

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At Folsom Prison
Cover shows a close up of Cash's face, looking at the camera.
Live album by Johnny Cash
Released May 1968
October 19, 1999 (re-release)
October 14, 2008 (Legacy Edition)
Recorded Live at Folsom State Prison, January 13, 1968
Genre Country
Length 55:56 (re-release)
Language English
Label Columbia
Producer Bob Johnston (original)
Bob Irwin (re-release)
Johnny Cash chronology
From Sea to Shining Sea
(1968)
At Folsom Prison
(1968)
Old Golden Throat
(1968)

At Folsom Prison is a live album and 27th overall album by Johnny Cash, released on Columbia Records in May 1968. Since his 1955 song "Folsom Prison Blues", Cash had been interested in performing at a prison. His idea was put on hold until 1967, when personnel changes at Columbia Records put Bob Johnston in charge of producing Cash's material. Cash had recently controlled his drug abuse problems, and was looking to turn his career around after several years of limited commercial success. Backed with June Carter, Carl Perkins and the Tennessee Three, Cash performed two shows at Folsom State Prison in California on January 13, 1968. The resulting album consisted of fifteen tracks from the first show and two tracks from the second.

Despite little initial investment by Columbia, the album was a hit in the United States, reaching number one on the country charts and the top 15 of the national album chart. The lead single from the album, a live version of "Folsom Prison Blues", was a top 40 hit, Cash's first since 1964's "Understand Your Man". At Folsom Prison received good reviews upon its release and the ensuing popularity revitalized Cash's career, leading to the release of a second prison album, At San Quentin. The album was re-released with additional tracks in 1999 and as a three-disc set in 2008. It was certified three times Platinum on March 27, 2003 by the Recording Industry Association of America for US sales exceeding three million.

Background[edit]

Johnny Cash first took interest in Folsom State Prison while serving in the United States Air Force Security Service. In 1953, his unit watched Crane Wilbur's film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. The movie inspired Cash to write a song that reflected his perception of prison life.[1] The result was "Folsom Prison Blues", Cash's second single on Sun Records. After its release, the song became popular among inmates, who would sometimes write to Cash, requesting him to perform at their prisons.[2] Cash's first prison performance was at Huntsville State Prison in 1957.[3] Satisfied by the favorable reception of the concert, he performed at several other prisons in the years leading up to the Folsom performance in 1968.[3]

A few years after attaining commercial success from songs such as "I Walk the Line", "Understand Your Man", and "Ring of Fire", Cash's popularity waned. This was due in no small part to his increasing dependence on drugs.[4] In 1967, Cash sought help for his escalating drug problems; by the end of the year, his drug use decreased and he sought to turn his career around.[5] Concurrently, the country portion of Columbia Records underwent major personnel changes. Frank Jones and Don Law, who had produced several of Cash's albums, were ousted in favor of Bob Johnston, who was known for his erratic behavior and willingness to disagree with studio executives.[6] Cash saw this as an opportunity to pitch his idea of recording a live album at a prison; Johnston enthusiastically supported the concept.[7] Johnston called San Quentin State Prison and Folsom, and Folsom was the first to respond.[8]

Recording[edit]

Photo of walls and guard towers of a prison.
The album was recorded at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, California.

On January 10, 1968, Cash and June Carter checked into the El Rancho Motel in Sacramento, California. They were later accompanied by the Tennessee Three, Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers, Johnny's father Ray Cash and producer Johnston. The performers rehearsed for two days, an uncommon occurrence for them, sometimes with two or more songs being rehearsed concurrently by various combinations of the musicians.[9] A fashion show taking place in an adjacent ballroom provided an unneeded distraction, and during the rehearsal sessions on January 12, California governor Ronald Reagan, who was at the hotel for an after-dinner speech, visited the band and offered his encouragement.[10] One of the foci of the sessions was to learn "Greystone Chapel", a song written by inmate Glen Sherley. Sherley recorded a version of the song, which he passed on to Rev. Floyd Gressett, a Ventura, CA pastor who regularly visited inmates at Folsom, via the prison's recreation director.[11][12] On January 13, the group traveled to Folsom, meeting up with Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn and Columbia photographer Jim Marshall, who were paid to document the album for the liner notes.[13]

Cash decided to hold two performances on January 13, one at 9:40 AM and one at 12:40 PM, in case the first performance was unsatisfactory.[14] After an introduction by MC Hugh Cherry, who encouraged the prisoners to "respond" to Cash's performance, Carl Perkins took the stage.[15] Perkins performed his hit song "Blue Suede Shoes". Following this song, The Statler Brothers sang their hit "Flowers on the Wall" and the country standard "This Old House".[16] Cherry again took the stage and instructed the inmates not to cheer for Cash until he introduced himself; they obliged.[2] Cash opened both shows with a rendition of "Folsom Prison Blues" and the concerts contained many songs about prison, including "The Wall", "Green, Green Grass of Home", and the gallows humor tune "25 Minutes to Go". The singer also included other songs of despair, such as the Merle Travis song "Dark as a Dungeon". Following "Orange Blossom Special", Cash included a few "slow, ballad-type songs", including "Send a Picture of Mother" and "The Long Black Veil", and then followed with three novelty songs from his album Everybody Loves A Nut, "Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog", "Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart", and "Joe Bean".[17] June Carter joined Cash on stage to perform a pair of duets. After a seven-minute version of a song from his "Blood, Sweat and Tears" album, "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer", Cash took a break and Carter recited a poem.[17] Cash ended both concerts with Sherley's "Greystone Chapel". The second concert was not as fruitful as the first; the musicians were fatigued from the earlier show.[18] Only two songs from the second concert, "Give My Love to Rose" and "I Got Stripes," made it onto the LP release.

Reception and impact[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic (re-issue) 5/5 stars link
Pitchfork Media (Legacy; 9.7/10) link
PopMatters (Legacy; 10/10) link
Rolling Stone (Legacy) 4/5 stars link

The album release of At Folsom Prison was prepared in four months. Despite the recent success of "Rosanna's Going Wild", a Cash single released just before the Folsom concerts that reached number two on the country charts, Columbia initially invested little in the album or its single "Folsom Prison Blues". This was due partially to Columbia's efforts to promote pop stars instead of country artists.[19][20] Nevertheless, the single charted on the Billboard Hot 100 on May 25, 1968; it also hit the country charts a week later.[21][22] The single suffered a setback, however, when Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Senator Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968. Radio stations ceased playing the single due to the macabre line: "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die". Reeling in the success prior to the assassination, Columbia demanded that Johnston remix the single with the line removed. Despite protests from Cash, the single was edited and re-released. The new version became a success, hitting number one on the country charts and the top forty on the national charts.[23] The successful single prompted the album to climb the album charts, eventually reaching number one on the Top Country Albums chart and number thirteen on the Pop Albums chart—the forerunner to the Billboard 200.[24] By August 1968, Folsom had shipped over 300,000 copies; two months later it was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for shipping over 500,000.[25][26]

At Folsom Prison received rave reviews upon its release. Al Aronowitz of Life stated that Cash sang the songs like "someone who has grown up believing he is one of the people that these songs are about."[27] For The Village Voice, Ann Fisher wrote that "every cut is special in its own way" and Richard Goldstein noted that the album was "filled with the kind of emotionalism you seldom find in rock."[28][29] Fredrick E. Danker of Sing Out! praised At Folsom Prison as "an album structured an aural experience for us."[30]

The success of At Folsom Prison revitalized Cash's career; according to Cash, "that's where things really got started for me again".[4] Sun Records re-dubbed Cash's previous B-side "Get Rhythm" with applause similar to Folsom's, and it became successful enough to enter the Hot 100.[31] Cash returned to the prison scene in 1969 when he recorded At San Quentin at San Quentin State Prison. At San Quentin became Cash's first album to hit number one on the Pop chart and produced the number two hit "A Boy Named Sue". The ensuing popularity from the Folsom concert also prompted ABC to give Cash his own television show.[32]

The album was re-released on October 19, 1999 with three extra tracks excluded from the original LP: "Busted", "Joe Bean", and "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer". Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic praised the new version, calling it "the ideal blend of mythmaking and gritty reality."[33] On May 27, 2003, At Folsom Prison was certified triple platinum by the RIAA for shipping over three million units.[26] Since its release, it has been acknowledged as one of the greatest albums of all time by several sources. In 2003, the album was ranked number 88 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Also that year, it was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry.[34] Country Music Television named it the third greatest album in country music in 2006.[35] Blender listed the album as the 63rd greatest American album of all time and as one of the "500 CDs You Must Own".[36][37] In 2006, Time listed it among the 100 greatest albums of all time.[38]

In 2008, Columbia and Legacy Records re-issued At Folsom Prison as a two CD, one DVD set. This so-called "Legacy Edition" contained both concerts uncut and remastered. The included DVD, produced by Bestor Cram and Michael Streissguth of Northern Light Productions, featured pictures and interviews relevant to the concert. Pitchfork Media lauded the collection, claiming that it had "the force of empathic endeavors, as if he were doing penance for his notorious bad habits."[39] Christian Hoard wrote for Rolling Stone that the Legacy edition "makes for an excellent historical document, highlighting Cash's rapport with prison folk."[40]

Track listing[edit]

Side 1
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. "Folsom Prison Blues"   Johnny Cash  
2. "Dark as a Dungeon"   Merle Travis  
3. "I Still Miss Someone"   J. Cash, Roy Cash Jr.  
4. "Cocaine Blues"   T.J. Arnall  
5. "25 Minutes to Go"   Shel Silverstein  
6. "Orange Blossom Special"   Ervin T. Rouse  
7. "The Long Black Veil"   Marijohn Wilkin, Danny Dill  
Side 2
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. "Send a Picture of Mother"   Cash  
2. "The Wall"   Harlan Howard  
3. "Dirty Old Egg-Suckin' Dog"   Jack H. Clement  
4. "Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart"   Clement  
5. "Jackson" (with June Carter) Billy Edd Wheeler, Jerry Leiber (as Gaby Rodgers)  
6. "Give My Love to Rose" (with June Carter) Cash  
7. "I Got Stripes"   Cash, Charlie Williams  
8. "Green, Green Grass of Home"   Curly Putman  
9. "Greystone Chapel"   Glen Sherley  

Re-release (1999)[edit]

Legacy Edition (2008)[edit]

Credits[edit]

Credited on 1999 re-issue
  • Bob Irwin – producer
  • Steven Berkowitz – producer, A&R
  • Vic Aneseni – mixing
  • Howard Fritzson – art direction
  • Darcy Proper – mastering
  • John Henry Jackson – product manager
  • Randall Martin – packaging manager
  • Darren Salmieri, Tim Smith – A&R
  • Nick Shaffran – consultant

Charts[edit]

Chart (1968) Peak
Position
Norwegian Albums Chart[41] 7
UK Albums Chart[42] 7
U.S. Pop Albums[24] 13
U.S. Top Country Albums[24] 1
Chart (1969) Peak
Position
Canada RPM LP Chart[43] 27

References[edit]

  1. ^ Pond, Steve (December 10, 1992). "Johnny Cash". Rolling Stone. 
  2. ^ a b Simmons, Sylvia (January 2003). "Outta My Way". Mojo. 
  3. ^ a b Johnny Cash (1975). Man In Black. Warner Books. p. 110. Retrieved 15 September 2013. 
  4. ^ a b Hilburn, Robert (March 1, 1973). "Nothing Can Take The Place of the Human Heart: A Conversation with Johnny Cash". Rolling Stone. 
  5. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 37
  6. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 59
  7. ^ Cash, Johnny. At Folsom Prison liner notes. Columbia Records, CS–9639, 1968.
  8. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 61
  9. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 65
  10. ^ Govoni 1970, p. 29–30
  11. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 66
  12. ^ Beley, Gene (Winter 2005). "Folsom Prison Blues". Virginia Quarterly Review. pp. 218–227. Retrieved November 8, 2008. 
  13. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 69
  14. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 63
  15. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 80
  16. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 88
  17. ^ a b Streissguth 2004, p. 108
  18. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 100
  19. ^ "Hot Country Singles". Billboard. January 27, 1968. 
  20. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 127, 132
  21. ^ "The Hot 100". Billboard. May 25, 1968. 
  22. ^ "Hot Country Singles". Billboard. June 1, 1968. 
  23. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 137–8
  24. ^ a b c "At Folsom Prison (1999 Expanded Edition) > Charts & Awards > Billboard Albums". Allmusic. Retrieved November 8, 2008. 
  25. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 142
  26. ^ a b "RIAA — Gold & Platinum Searchable Database". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved November 8, 2008. 
  27. ^ Aronowitz, Alfred G. (August 16, 1968). "Music Behind the Bars: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison". Life. 
  28. ^ Fisher, Annie (October 17, 1968). "Riffs". The Village Voice. 
  29. ^ Goldstein, Richard (June 6, 1968). "Pop Eye". The Village Voice. 
  30. ^ Danker, Frederick E. (September 1968). "Johnny Cash: A Certain Tragic Sense of Life". Sing Out!. 
  31. ^ "The Hot 100". Billboard. November 15, 1969. 
  32. ^ Cash & Carr 1997, p. 58
  33. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "At Folsom Prison (1999 Expanded Edition) (review)". Allmusic. Retrieved November 8, 2008. 
  34. ^ "The National Recording Registry 2003". The Library of Congress. October 25, 2006. Archived from the original on November 18, 2008. Retrieved November 8, 2008. 
  35. ^ "The Greatest: CMT 40 Greatest Albums". 2006. Viacom. Country Music Television.
  36. ^ Aizelwood, John (February 2002). "The 100 Greatest American Albums of All time". Blender. Archived from the original on April 19, 2002.  Accessed via webarchive November 8, 2008.
  37. ^ "500 CDs You Must Own". Blender. April 2003. Retrieved November 22, 2008. [dead link]
  38. ^ "The All-TIME 100 Albums". Time. November 13, 2006. Archived from the original on October 28, 2008. Retrieved November 8, 2008. 
  39. ^ Deusner, Stephen M. (October 23, 2008). "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition (review)". Pitchfork Media. Archived from the original on November 3, 2008. Retrieved November 11, 2008. 
  40. ^ Hoard, Christian (October 16, 2008). "At Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition (review)". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on November 29, 2008. Retrieved November 17, 2008. 
  41. ^ "Johnny Cash — At Folsom Prison (Album)". Norwegiancharts.com. Retrieved February 3, 2009. 
  42. ^ "At Folsom Prison". Chart Stats. Retrieved February 3, 2009. 
  43. ^ "LP Chart". RPM 12 (8). October 18, 1969. Retrieved February 3, 2009. 

Further reading[edit]