“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” With these words – spoken in front of an auditorium full of inmates – Johnny Cash transcended stardom and became a music legend. This week’s Throwback Thursday takes us back to January 13, 1968, the day that Johnny Cash recorded the live album At Folsom Prison.
The 1968 performance at Folsom wasn’t Cash’s first at such an institution. After his Air Force unit watched the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, he felt compelled to write a song about the plight of the men confined there, resulting in “Folsom Prison Blues.” The song became popular with inmates throughout the country, who often wrote asking Cash to come perform. He took them up on their offer, and had played several prison concerts by that fateful day in January of 1968.
Cash, alongside June Carter, Carl Perkins, and the Tennessee Three, performed two shows at Folsom State Prison that day. The best songs were picked from both shows, resulting in an album of seventeen tracks, many of which were about the life of a prisoner. The last song on the album “Greystone Chapel” was written by Glen Shirley, an inmate there at Folsom. The album was released in May and became a huge success in the U.S., reaching the top of the charts, and the single about the conspicuous venue, “Folsom Prison Blues,” was a top 40 hit.
Perhaps more important than the album’s commercial success at the time was the role it played in shaping The Man in Black’s outlaw image. At Folsom Prison firmly established Johnny Cash as an everyman that could identify with the plight of the prisoners there, many of whom no doubt struggled with similar drug problems as Cash himself. In his 1997 autobiography, Cash states that he donned his signature outfit of all black on behalf of “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime”, and those affected by drugs.
Despite having his fair share of run-ins with the law, these never amounted to more than a night in jail, and Cash certainly never served an actual prison sentence. Yet, somehow he was able to empathize with the men there in Folsom. Life magazine’s Al Aronowitz commented that Cash sings like “someone who has grown up believing he is one of the people that these songs are about.” There is a certain earnestness and honesty throughout the performance, one that Richard Goldstein of The Village Voice noted was “filled with the kind of emotionalism you seldom find in rock.”
At Folsom Prison revitalized Cash’s career, and he went on to record another prison live album, At San Quentin, which was his first to hit number one on the pop charts, and produced his only top 10 single, “A Boy Named Sue,” an adaptation of a comedic poem by Shel Silverstein. The success of At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin eventually led ABC to give Cash his own music variety show.
Today, At Folsom Prison is regarded as one of the most influential albums of all time. It ranks in both Rolling Stone and Time‘s top 100 greatest albums of all time lists, and was chosen by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Recording Registry.
Elsewhere in January 1968:
- Laugh-In Socks It to TV Audiences: Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was a sketch comedy program that originally aired as a one-time special in September of 1967. That special was so successful, it was brought back on January 22, 1968 as a recurring series replacing The Man from U.N.C.L.E. on NBC’s Monday night lineup. The show was very much a reflection of the late 60s and early 70s, and many of its gags and sketches were fueled by the sexual revolution and political turmoil of the time. In fact, Richard Nixon’s 1968 appearance and delivery of the signature line “Sock it to me!” may have helped win him the election that year. Laugh-In helped launch the careers of several regulars, including Goldie Hawn, Tiny Tim, Richard Dawson, and Lily Tomlin.
- The Beatles Go on a Magical Mystery Tour: Though it was released in late 1967 to accompany the film of the same name, The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour US LP release hit number one on the Billboard charts on January 6, 1968, where it stayed for eight weeks. It was later nominated for Grammy Album of the Year. The album expands upon the musical explorations of Sgt. Pepper, and blends poetry, psychedelia, humor, and Hindu philosophy to great effect in songs like “I Am the Walrus”, “Penny Lane”,”Strawberry Fields Forever”, and “All You Need is Love.”
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