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Johnny Cash Takes A Stand: Looking Back On His Folsom Prison Performance

Jan 12, 2018
Originally published on January 12, 2018 6:24 am

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." Those words were uttered to wild applause in the cafeteria of Folsom Prison, a maximum security facility northeast of Sacramento, Calif. on Jan. 13, 1968.

Johnny Cash played a lot of prison concerts during his career, though he never did hard time himself. His daughter Tara Cash Schwoebel says her father's interest in prisons went back to his days serving in the U.S. Air Force in Germany in the early 1950s. That's when he saw the noir crime drama Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.

"I think that's where all of this kind of grew from," Schwoebel says. "He was just moved by the film."

Cash wrote the song "Folsom Prison Blues" in 1955; it was his first big hit. But by 1968, he hadn't had a hit in several years. He'd become notorious for missing concert dates, and because of an addiction to prescription pills, he was usually out of it when he did show up.

When he arranged the date at Folsom, Cash at least knew he'd have a captive audience. "One thing he liked about playing prisons: If he did something the audience didn't like, they couldn't leave," W.S. "Fluke" Holland, Cash's drummer at the time, says. Holland didn't expect much would come of the two sessions the band played that day.

"I told everybody it won't sell enough to pay for the expense of going out with the recording equipment," Holland recalls. "That shows how wrong I was."

When the album At Folsom Prison was released the following May, it topped the Billboard country charts and Cash's career took off again. He recorded another best-selling album from San Quentin Prison in 1969. Schwoebel says her father continued to perform in prisons around the country and use his celebrity to speak out on behalf of prisoners.

"I think it really spoke to his rebellious side," Schwoebel explains. "He really had a passion for standing up for these people who were locked up, you know, and treated so poorly."

In 1972, Cash testified at a U.S. Senate subcommittee on prison reform. Among other proposals, he called for keeping minors out of jail and focusing on rehabilitating inmates.

"Between the attention that he created through his performances and being seated at the Senate, he created a lot more awareness," Schwoebel says.

Johnny Cash never saw the transformation he had hoped to see. He eventually refocused his energies on other causes, like helping the families of police officers who had been killed in the line of duty. In the 50 years since At Folsom Prison was recorded, the percentage of Californians in state prisons has nearly doubled.

Today, in the cafeteria at Folsom Prison, inmate Andrew Clayton plays guitar as part of a California prison program that provides training in music, painting and other creative pursuits: He's the lead guitarist with Blind Justice, one of the penitentiary's in-house bands. Country music isn't his thing, but he still finds Cash's connection with Folsom inspiring.

"Just the fact that he played here, and I'm playing here," Clayton says, "I feel like I'm part of something special."

Copyright 2018 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're launching a new series today looking back 50 years to some of the most momentous events of 1968. There were political events, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; big scientific milestones, like Apollo 8, the first spacecraft to orbit the moon; and iconic moments in the arts, like the one we are remembering today.

This weekend marks 50 years since Johnny Cash played a concert for inmates at California's Folsom Prison. The album "At Folsom Prison" pulled his career out of a slump, and it helped Cash set his sights on something else, prison reform. Chloe Veltman of member station KQED has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNNY CASH: Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.

(CHEERING)

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Johnny Cash uttered those words in the cafeteria at Folsom Prison, northeast of Sacramento, Calif. Cash had wanted to record an album in a prison for a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLSOM PRISON BLUES")

CASH: (Singing) I hear the train a-comin'. It's rolling 'round the bend. And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when.

VELTMAN: This was the second of four appearances that Cash made at Folsom. He played a lot of prison shows during his career though he never did hard time himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLSOM PRISON BLUES")

CASH: (Singing) But that train keeps rollin' on down to San Anton (ph).

VELTMAN: The singer's daughter Tara Cash Schwoebel says her father's interest in prisons went back to his days serving in the U.S. Air Force in Germany in the early 1950s. That's when he saw the noir crime drama "Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What I wouldn't give to crash out of this joint and get some decent chow for a change.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah. Me, too.

TARA CASH SCHWOEBEL: And I think that's where all of this kind of grew from. He was just moved by the film.

VELTMAN: Cash wrote the song "Folsom Prison Blues" in 1955. It was his first big hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY CASH SONG, "FOLSOM PRISON BLUES")

VELTMAN: But by 1968, he hadn't had a hit in several years. He'd become notorious for missing concert dates. Addicted to prescription pills, he was usually out of it when he did show up. When he arranged the date at Folsom, Cash at least knew he'd have a captive audience.

W. S. HOLLAND: One thing he liked about playing prisons - if he did something the audience didn't like, they couldn't leave.

VELTMAN: His drummer W. S. Fluke Holland was there. He says he didn't expect much would come of the two sessions the band played that day.

HOLLAND: I told everybody, it won't sell enough to pay for the expense of going out with the recording equipment. Now that shows how wrong I was (laughter).

VELTMAN: When the album "Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison" was released in May of 1968, it topped the country charts. The album still appears on critics' best-of lists and has sold millions of copies worldwide.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COCAINE BLUES")

CASH: (Singing) Early one morning while making the rounds, took a shot of cocaine, and I shot my woman down.

VELTMAN: Cash's career took off again. He recorded another best-selling album from San Quentin. Schwoebel says her father continued to perform in prisons around the country and to use his celebrity to speak out on behalf of prisoners.

SCHWOEBEL: I think it really spoke to his rebellious side. He really had a passion for standing up for these people who were locked up, you know - and treated so poorly.

VELTMAN: In 1972, Cash testified at a U.S. Senate subcommittee on prison reform. Among other proposals, he called for keeping minors out of jail and focusing on rehabilitating inmates.

SCHWOEBEL: Between the attention that he created through his performances and being seated at the Senate, he created a lot more awareness.

VELTMAN: But Johnny Cash never saw the transformation he had hoped to see. He eventually refocused his energies on other causes, like helping the families of police officers who'd been killed in the line of duty.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLIND JUSTICE SONG)

VELTMAN: Today in the cafeteria at Folsom Prison, inmate Andrew Clayton plays guitar as part of a California prison program which provides training in music, painting and other creative pursuits. He's the lead guitarist with Blind Justice, one of the penitentiary's in-house bands. Country music isn't his thing, but he still finds Cash's connection with Folsom inspiring.

ANDREW CLAYTON: Just the fact that he played here and I'm playing here, I feel like I'm a part of something special.

VELTMAN: Despite Johnny Cash's desire for reform, in the 50 years since "At Folsom Prison" was recorded, the percentage of Californians in state prisons has nearly doubled.

For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLSOM PRISON BLUES")

CASH: (Singing) I bet there's rich folks eating from a fancy dining cart. They're probably drinking coffee and smoking big... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.