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Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

That opening line, as if the assembled audience needed any introduction, gave way to a giddy roar and then, one of country music’s great performances.

It was January 13 in 1968 that Johnny Cash played his “At Folsom Prison” concert.

The event was meant to revive Mr. Cash’s career, which had flagged since the 1950s thanks to an out-of-control amphetamine habit.

Executives at Mr. Cash’s record label, Columbia Records, saw him as so unreliable that they kept the planning of the Folsom show a secret from the press, said Robert Hilburn, author of “Johnny Cash: The Life.” They weren’t certain he would show.

Thankfully, he did.

“And he was incredible. It was like he sensed this was a moment,” said Mr. Hilburn, who himself attended the concert after hearing about it from a disc jockey.

Mr. Cash tailored his song choices along themes of longing, sin and misfortune, including, of course, his 1955 hit “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Assembled in the heavily guarded Dining Room 2, the inmates couldn’t get enough.

“You could just sense their spirit rising,” said Mr. Hilburn. “It was just electrifying.”

The band actually performed twice, in the morning and afternoon, to ensure a good recording.

“At Folsom Prison” drew largely from the first show and was released four months later. It was a huge success and kicked off a resurgence in Mr. Cash’s popularity. A year later, he did another prison record, “At San Quentin,” which was also successful.

In the wake of the performances, he became a prominent voice for prisoner rights.


By Mike McPhate for the New York Times; Photo by Jim Marshall


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