Dec 10 2012

Johnny Cash, Prison Reformer #1

Nothing good ever came out a prison.” — Johnny Cash

This is the first of a series of meditations about Johnny Cash. Cash became somewhat of an obsession since I first heard ‘Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison’ when I was 15 years old. I came upon the record quite by accident. I was at a friend’s apartment. Her father was an avid country music fan. He was playing the album while I happened to be visiting. It would be several years before I became an anti-prison activist. So at the time, it was the music rather than the song content or lyrics that piqued my interest.

Later when I was much older, I began to appreciate the album for its social significance. It is a statement about the marginalized in our society and fits perfectly into the protest music of its era.

According to Michael Streissguth (2004), Cash learned about Folsom Prison in 1953 by watching a film titled “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.” The non-critically acclaimed film inspired him to write the song “Folsom Prison Blues” with the memorable line “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.” This line and most of the song have been criticized as being plagiarized from various sources. Regardless, Cash recorded the song in 1955 and it became one of his biggest hits.

Cash has reflected on the resonance and relevance of prison songs:

“I think that prison songs are popular because most of us are living in one little kind of prison or another, and whether we know it or not the words of a song about someone who is actually in prison speak for a lot of us who might appear not to be, but really are.”

‘Folsom Prison Blues’ helped to cement Cash’s outlaw reputation. It also made him popular with prisoners. Cash explained: “After ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ the prisoners felt kinda like I was one of them…I’d get letters from them, some asking me to come and play.”

Cash & his band first responded to an invitation to play at Huntsville State Prison in Texas in 1957. It was an extremely rare occurrence for any musicians to perform concerts inside prisons at the time, let alone a famous singer. Merle Haggard who saw Cash perform at San Quentin while he was incarcerated there in the late 50’s recalls his impact on prisoners:

…I had been in awe of him since I saw him play on New Year’s Day in 1958, at San Quentin Prison, where I was an inmate. He’d lost his voice the night before over in Frisco and wasn’t able to sing very good; I thought he’d had it, but he won over the prisoners. He had the right attitude: He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards — he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan. There were 5,000 inmates in San Quentin and about thirty guitar players; I was among the top five guitarists in there. The day after Johnny’s show, man, every guitar player in San Quentin was after me to teach them how to play like him. It was like how, the day after a Muhammad Ali fight, everybody would be down in the yard shadowboxing; that day, everyone was trying to learn ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’

Playing prison shows had a significant impact on Cash. He performed over thirty shows from the late 50s through the late 60s. Michael Streissguth (2004) writes about how these experiences affected Cash:

“He witnessed the ravages of prison life in his audience, read about them in letters from prisoners, and heard about them from Rev. Floyd Gresset, Cash’s pastor in California, who frequently counseled imprisoned men. An image of life wasted by incarceration, now based on observation rather than a movie, took form in Cash’s mind (p.41).”

He became staunchly anti-prison and advocated for reform. He explained his philosophy about prisons:

“I mean, I just don’t think prisons do any good. They put ’em in there and just make ’em worse, if they were ever bad in the first place, and then when they let ’em out they’re just better at whatever put ’em in there in the first place. Nothing good ever came out a prison. That’s all I’m trying to say.”

In the next two installments of this ongoing meditation, I will focus on the making of the album ‘Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison’ in greater depth and also on Cash’s congressional testimony about prison reform in the early 1970s. Stay tuned over the next few weeks…