♪ I’m stuck in Folsom Prison and time keeps dragging on ♪ These popular lyrics were penned by Country music legend Johnny Cash who only spent two days in the prison but captured the desperation of its residents. Today’s #HistoryMonday is all about Cash’s more important day in the prison.
On this day in 1968, Johnny Cash performed a concert at Folsom State Prison as a nod to his popular song “Folsom Prison Blues” which he had written nearly a decade and half earlier. Although having been arrested for minor offenses with drugs and alcohol, Cash had only spent a few days in local jails and was inspired by a documentary about Folsom Prison.
Having played at the prison in 1966 to a smaller crowd, Cash realized that recording a live album might draw help re-start his career. As predicted, the concert drew large media attention which reinvigorated Cash’s success in the musical market and the album At Folsom Prison hit number 1 on the charts.
Johnny Cash had been encouraged by a local preacher to meet with the prisoners for the 1966 concert in order to help deal with struggles in Cash’s life. Through that concert, Cash began correspondence with many of the prisoners. He soon realized the unorthodox recording at a prison would help him recover his career after several high-profile divorces and substance abuse struggles which hurt his image.
Johnny Cash was moved by stories of the prisoners and personal observation of their lives at Folsom prison and began to advocate for prison reform. This push for prison reform eventually led him to a meeting with Pres. Nixon to change the way prisons were run in the United States.
From the success of At Folsom Prison, Cash recorded a live album at San Quentin shortly after which also met with similar success. A prisoner at San Quentin was inspired by Cash’s performance and upon his release, started a Country music career of his own. Following the same outlaw genre of Cash, Merle Haggard wrote and performed songs telling tales of a prisoner’s desperation and encounters with the law.
This concert also has inspired other artists who realize that prisoners are worthy of human rights and deserving of hope. Most recently Lauren Daigle and Kanye West performed at prisons while promoting Christian music and attempting to bring something encouraging and hopeful to the inmates. A fictional concert in the movie, Airheads sees the main characters record a live album while being inmates serving time for being convicted of kidnapping after taking a radio station hostage in order to get their unsolicited single played.
Have you listened to At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash?