Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison

Johnny Cash

Columbia / Legacy Records, 1968

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Back in the '60s, it seemed like some artists got a kick out of recording albums in jails or prisons. B.B. King did it at Cook County Jail, and Johnny Cash did it at both San Quentin and Folsom Prison. Maybe it was because they were guaranteed a captive audience. (No, no, scratch that...)

Ahem. Cash's 1968 release Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison dares to show a more human side of both artist and prisoners. You can hear Cash speak almost lovingly to people whose condition he could understand, having been in a few tussles with the law in his day. As for the prisoners, the joy in their cheers as the music plays is obvious. And if this album didn't feel so rushed, it would be damn near perfect.

The notoriously dark side of Cash's music is evident early on in this set, with songs like "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Still Miss Someone" and "The Long Black Veil" showcasing his talents well. Of course, there has to be levity somewhere in such a tense setting, and it comes as Cash starts laughing during "Dark As The Dungeon" - though we can't really tell whether it was a member of the audience, a band member or Cash himself who triggered the inside joke.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

If that moment started to break the ice, then Cash melted the rest down with a flamethrower with songs like "25 Minutes To Go,": a gallows pole song that gave Cash the chance to break loose with his emotions and musical style. If you needed any more moments of levity, they came in the form of two songs: "Dirty Old Egg-Suckin' Dog" and "Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart". (And I always thought the latter of those song titles was fake - yeesh.)

Musically, Cash and his band hit the mark consistently on all but a few tracks. "Jackson" brings in Cash's wife June, who just doesn't sound like she's comfortable on this track. If there was one track I would have left off, it would have been "The Legend Of John Henry's Hammer," one of three tracks added on to the remastered version of this album. Admittedly, I've never been a fan of any of the versions of "John Henry" I've heard over the years, but this one just seems to wander aimlessly style-wise, and was rightfully left off the original release.

The one vibe I get from Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison is that he's being rushed through his set - and he probably was, as he's heard asking at one point how much more time he has to perform. Had Cash been given the luxury of time, the overall feel of this album (which isn't bad to begin with) would have been that much better. But let's face it: the only place Cash would get that kind of time is in a tradtional theatre setting - and then you'd have lost the sheer joy of the prisoners getting a moment of sunlight in an otherwise dark time of their lives.

One other disappointment for me is that songs like "Ring Of Fire" and "I Walk The Line" are nowhere to be heard. Admittedly, I don't know much about Cash's career save for what I own and have listened to, so I'm willing to admit ignorance if the songs weren't written at the time this album was recorded. However, I'm inclined to believe that they were written well before 1968, so my disappointment is justified.

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison is still a very entertaining album featuring Cash in a unique musical setting that is special to hear, even over three decades after it was recorded. If you're interested in learning more about Cash and his music, this is a nice place to start.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1999 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia / Legacy Records, and is used for informational purposes only.