Welcome to “Original Rock Legends!” To celebrate Geva’s final show this season, the hit musical Million Dollar Quartet directed by Hunter Foster, I’m taking you through a musical journey, uncovering the history behind the songs featured in Million Dollar Quartet.
This week, we’re exploring the legends behind Johnny Cash’s music:
“Folsom Prison Blues”-1955
“I hear the train a comin’, it’s rollin’ ’round the bend/And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when/I’m stuck at Folsom Prison and time keeps draggin’ on/But that train keeps rollin’ on down to San Antone.”
Johnny Cash shot to stardom when ”Folsom Prison Blues” hit Number Four on the Billboard country chart in 1956 (on a two-sided record with “So Doggone Lonesome”), but his connection to Folsom Prison deepened significantly when he performed there, and at other state prisons, in the late 1950s-1960s.
Despite popular misconceptions dawn from “Folsom Prison Blues’” believable lyrics, Cash had never been imprisoned for more than a night on “drunk and disorderly” charges. He was first compelled by prisoners’ plight when he saw the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison in 1953, while working as a radio operator in the US Air Force. Still, when the song dropped three years later, Cash did little to dispel rumors about him being a former inmate, and his rugged image gave “Folsom Prison Blues” an air of authenticity while countering the squeaky-clean pop icons of the day. Whether the rumors were true or not, inmates wanted to hear from this Johnny Cash guy: In the late 1950s, Cash started receiving invitations to perform in prisons.
Cash’s first prison gig was in 1957 at the Huntsville State Prison in Texas. The experience blew him away. According to multiple sources, Cash has said that inmate audiences were the “best [he’d] ever performed for.” They were so responsive to the music and so clearly enjoying the distraction from their daily drudgery. After that experience, Cash booked many more prison gigs in the years to come. This video from Biography.com best depicts Cash’s prison concert experience, using historic footage as well as reflections from Cash, former inmates/prison employees, and public figures.
By far his most famous prison performances were the two concerts recorded live by Columbia Records (after twisting Columbia’s arm a bit) : Cash’s 1968 At Folsom Prison album, and his 1969 “sequel,” At San Quentin. These recordings also took place as the country was becoming more aware of inhumane prison conditions—or, according to some historians, these recordings fueled that public discovery and acknowledgment of the unjust penal system, because Cash gave the public an insiders’ look at life behind bars previously unavailable to the public. Either way, Cash was happy to become an advocate for penal system reform, and as a devout Christian, believed both in peoples’ potential to redeem themselves. Cash even lobbied Congress members on behalf of inmates’ rights, raised money for a prison chapel, and more, all described eloquently in an often-cited BBC article from 2013 on Cash’s advocacy work.
And now, let’s hear Johnny Cash’s recording of “Folsom Prison Blues”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Xyp63MaSBs
Thanks for tuning in to “Original Rock Legends!” We’ll be back on Wednesday with more stories behind the legendary musicians who defined rock ‘n’ roll. This program is sponsored by Geva Theatre Center, where the Million Dollar Quartet comes back to life, LIVE onstage, now through June 25th. Until next time, rock on my friends!