Classic Tracks: Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues"

Jul 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Barbara Schultz

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Nineteen sixty-eight was a time of rebellion and rebirth for the United States, and it was one of several such periods in the life and career of Johnny Cash. That year, Cash married his soul mate, June Carter, who had helped him leave behind the drug abuse that had endangered his career in the middle part of that decade. It was also the year Cash recorded his most popular album, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. The first few seconds of this live album still stand among the most electrifying in the history of concert recording. Cash begins with his trademark greeting, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," the inmates cheer, and Cash begins playing, and then singing "Folsom Prison Blues."

It's the way everything came together that makes this version of "Folsom Prison Blues" so thrilling, and made it the smash hit it was in '68. Cash's strong songwriting was matched by the brilliant playing and timing of his longtime cohorts, the Tennessee Three (guitarist Luther Perkins, bassist Marshall Grant and drummer W.S. Holland), and the sizzling energy of the inmate audience, as they fittingly cheered, howled or mourned at every line. The live recording, which had been Cash's idea, breathed new life into this 12-year-old song.

"Folsom Prison Blues" was actually one of Cash's first compositions. While in the Air Force in the early '50s, during the Korean War, he bought his first guitar and began writing songs. In 1955, after his stint in the military, he landed his first recording contract at Sam Phillips' Sun Records. Cash had hoped to be signed as a gospel artist, but Phillips-one of the true architects of rock 'n' roll and rockabilly-was looking for something more commercial. So, Cash suggested some of his own songs; his first single for Sun was "Cry Cry Cry"/"Hey Porter," which entered the country charts at Number 14.

The studio recording of "Folsom Prison Blues" was the follow-up single, and it first reached the country Top Five in 1956-just one of the many hits Cash scored with Sun. He became the first of Phillips' stable to record a full-length album in 1957: Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar included two Number One songs, "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" and "Guess Things Happen That Way." However, Cash still yearned to record a gospel album, and Phillips still didn't want one from him, so Cash left Sun and began his long relationship with Columbia Records.

Meanwhile, the prison circuit was already becoming a regular part of Cash's touring schedule. "The prison albums were natural ideas," Cash wrote in his 1997 autobiography, Cash. "By 1968, I'd been doing prison concerts for more than a decade, ever since 'Folsom Prison Blues' got the attention of the inmates at the Huntsville, Texas, prison in 1957. They'd been putting on a rodeo every year, and that year the prison officials decided to let them have an entertainer, too; they asked for me.

"As soon as we kicked off, though," Cash continues, "a huge thunderstorm let loose-I mean a big one, a real toad strangler-and that cramped our style considerably. Luther's amplifier shorted out, and Marshall's bass came apart in the rain. I kept going, though, with just my guitar, and the prisoners loved that. Word got around on the prison grapevine that I was okay, and the next thing I knew I got a letter from San Quentin, asking me to perform at their annual New Year's show on January 1, 1958. I went ahead and did that and did it again for several years in a row, taking June with me the last couple of years. I didn't know until years later when he told me so, that Merle Haggard had been in the front row for three of those concerts."

Cash says that he had a strong sense early on that if he ever made a live album, prison would be the ideal location. "Those shows were always really hot," he writes. "The inmates were excited and enthusiastic, and that got me going...I didn't get anywhere when I approached [Columbia producer/A&R representative] Don Law with the idea, though; he just didn't like it. Then when Bob Johnston [producer of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and other Cash recordings] took over my production, I mentioned it to him, and he loved it...I called a preacher friend of mine back in California, the Reverend Floyd Gressett, who went into Folsom to preach once a month and knew the officials there, and we set it up."

There weren't a lot of records kept regarding the technical aspects of this recording, but we can see in Jim Marshall's excellent photos, such as the one above, that mostly Shure SM56 microphones were used. (The now-discontinued SM56 was essentially an SM57 on a swivel-mount.) We can also see the Shure SH55 and University vocal horn that were patched together for the P.A. Marshall's memories of the day at Folsom also corroborate Cash's beliefs about the atmosphere in the prison hall: "I think if John would have said, 'Follow me out of here-we're goin',' they would have followed him; blacks and white alike. The electricity at Folsom was amazing. You can hear it on the record."

Marshall also says that, unlike the later San Quentin recordings, the Folsom show was "much more spontaneous. It was like 'Let's go do a concert, and we'll happen to record it.'"

Bob Irwin, founder of another great reissue label, Sundazed Music, has produced more than 350 releases for Sony Music Legacy. He recently produced the remastered version of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, so he has worked with the masters Columbia's engineers vaulted more than three decades ago. "The show was originally recorded to half-inch, 4-track," he says. "The engineers would run both an A and B machine, overlapping, with minimal processing-no EQ going to tape. They would, however, put each channel through what was most likely a bank of LA-2As, which is why Johnny's vocal has that crunchy, slightly distorted quality. I certainly don't mean that to be disparaging, though; that sound has become an intregal part of this recording. It was also leakage central, which is also fine, because that too has always played an important part in the imaging and texture of the record."

Irwin says Columbia didn't keep a record of what the date was recorded to, but it was "probably nothing fancy back then. Most likely it was a small truck sent out by Columbia Records. As a rule, Columbia recorded many remotes-more than I've ever seen at any other major label. There are enough wonderful vintage live recordings available that it has afforded Sony/Legacy the opportunity to create the whole "Live From the Vaults" series. From Clive Davis' time at the label, and actually for a few years before that, this company made it a rule to be doing remote recordings, which is now an absolutely wonderful resource to draw from."

After the gig, the A and B versions of the concert were taken back to the studio and compared, and the original multitrack for the album was created. "They would actually cut the preferred takes out of either the A or the B reel," Irwin says, "unless there was something that was captured on the B machine that was missed on the A machine. In this case, the entire B set of reels was untouched, and that's what we worked from, because the original show was there in the original sequence. The flow and pacing of the show were second to none."

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison went Gold the year it was released, and "Folsom Prison Blues" re-entered the country charts-a dozen years after the Top Five success of the studio version-and went to Number One. The song was also a crossover hit for Cash, going to Number 32 on the pop charts and, for a time, earning Cash a mainstream following. "I've always thought it ironic that it was a prison concert," he observes in Cash, "with me and the convicts getting along just as fellow rebels, outsiders and miscreants should. That pumped up my marketability to the point where ABC thought I was respectable enough to have a weekly network TV show."

This was, of course, just one of the many peaks in Cash's long and productive career. Like many of the great country and rock 'n' roll artists he came up with, he's been lost and found a dizzying number of times by the American public. To his credit, however, what he remembers about Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison has nothing to do with chart success and everything to do with what he tried to bring into the lives of some forgotten men. In the liner notes to this year's remastered Folsom Prison CD, Cash writes:

"There are scenes as sharp in my memory as if it were last night. The look on Glen Sherley's face as I announced his song, the reaction from the cons when I introduced myself, and the faces. The pain and hopelessness of a soul beaten down, of failure, of failure to stay free of the system, of failure to be able to ignore today's pain.

"But there are swelling balloons of joy to burst in a couple of hours for sure when they have to go back to their cells. But, for now, let it blow! We are in the timeless now. There is no calendar inside the cafeteria today, January 13, 1968."






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