Johnny Cash is probably my favorite performer. A musician with a limited formal and vocal range, he took his boom-chikka-boom beat from Sun records in the 50s through the folk revival of the 60s, the outlaw movement of the 70s, the new traditionalism of the 80s. He made concept albums about the persecution of Native Americans, performed duets with Bob Dylan, and sang about love, god, murder, a boy named Sue and eating beans for breakfast.
His catalog is filled with sublime surprises—like his wonderful cameo on Emmylou Harris’ Roses in the Snow—and glorious train wrecks—like his concussed, soulfully soulless version of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” An icon of cool who was unwaveringly willing to look ridiculous, over a 50-year career he never stopped experimenting with new songs, new songwriters, new collaborators, and new gimmicks.
The restlessness and generosity which made Cash so great also makes it hard to pin his particular genius down to any one album, though. His recordings generally have ups and downs, and even compilations and box sets don’t quite get at his breadth or his willingness to ramble. He liked to compare himself to a shark, always moving. Stopping him in any one moment feels like it diminishes him.
At Folsom Prison is perhaps his most characteristic performance not so much because it grabs hold of Cash’s virtues as because it’s about his refusal to be held. Like the title says, the album is a 1968 live recording from California’s Folsom State Prison. As music, it’s good but not exactly transcendent; Cash’s voice is a bit ragged (possibly from amphetamine use) and the familiar hits aren’t necessarily improved by a live setting. “I Still Miss Someone” is taken at an incongruously jaunty tempo compared to the studio version, and while Johnny’s secret weapon (and future wife) June Carter wails and roars in fine spirit on “Jackson,” the echoey acoustics flatten out the duet’s flirtatious buzz.
But if individual songs don’t always connect, the occasion as a whole is irresistible. Even before the era of mass incarceration, Cash opposed the pointless cruelty of locking people away. “How could this torment possibly do anyone any good?” he asks in the liner notes, and many of the songs capture the experience of despair and longing. “I ain’t seen the sunshine/since I don’t know when.”
The album isn’t all despair though, and the prisoners roar through a number of tales of crime, imprisonment, and rowdy hard time and trouble. They erupt when Cash declares, “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die”—and cheer even louder when he tells them the concert is being recorded, and then tweaks the producer by saying “shit” live. They also laugh uproariously at the corny off-color grandpa punchlines.
I’ve been washed down the sink of your conscience
In the theater of your love I lost my part
And now you say you’ve got me out of your conscience
I’ve been flushed from the bathroom of your heart.
The final track on the album is, famously, a song written by Glen Sherley, an inmate at Folsom present in the audience at the performance. Cash had only performed the tune once before, and the band and singer struggle a little trying to match the words to the tempo. Cash sounds like he’s rushing to catch up with himself as he sings.
There’s a greystone chapel here at Folsom
A house of worship in this den of sin.
You wouldn’t think that God had a place here at Folsom
But he’s saved the souls of many lost men.
That only adds to the feeling of urgency, and the yearning though; the lyrics flutter about, searching for a release, as June’s harmony soars behind Cash’s wavering baritone. “Inside the walls of prison my body may be/but my Lord has set my soul free.”
Much of what made Cash special was that he was so eager to keep learning and discovering; he found one of his signature songs by covering industrial band Nine Inch Nails when he was 70. In that vein, Folsom Prison is powerful not because Cash is performing for the prisoners, but because he’s collaborating with them—identifying with their troubles, bouncing jokes off them, singing their songs. “Those people keep a’moving/and that’s what tortures me,” he intones on the famous “Folsom Prison Blues,” but the singer knew that people were moving, and worth following, even in a cage. Cash wanted to meet and learn from everyone; there were no songs he wouldn’t sing. At Folsom Prison captures him best because it’s the clearest statement of how much he hated walls.