The Only Live Album I’ve Ever Found Worth A Damn.
Cash performs songs about prison life in front of actual prisoners as they whoop and holler — it’s surreal!
Rolling Stone’s Ranking: #88/100
My mom gave me Chaka Khan’s Greatest Hits Live as some kind of cruel joke. I was on an R&B kick and made a playlist that featured a few of her songs, and after hearing it, she proceeded to give me one of the worst albums I’ve recently heard.
“This is just awful,” I said. “Isn’t it though?” she replied.
But who should really be surprised? Live albums are traditionally awful. Favorite songs are mashed together with poor recording quality, long solo’s by unknown band members, and the realization that musicians aren’t perfect. The gap in talent between the recording studio and the live audience can be too large to bear; it breaks the transcendent spell music is supposed to put us in.
At Folsom Prison is the only live album I know where the format actually bolsters the performance. That’s because the audience isn’t a faceless mob hollering for an encore; it’s prisoners listening to music that reflected their life. Cash’s musical set was intimately linked to everyone in the room with songs that could have been a personal testament from countless in the room. Hell: one song he performed was WRITTEN by one of the inmates!
It becomes a surreal meta-narrative. As Johny Cash sings about the ennui of prison life, you get to hear those in the room reverberate with complete understanding. Then between tracks, a Warden drones out prisoner numbers to report to somewhere for something. The setting reflects the music which reflects the lived experience of those present.
It’s completely amazing.
Cash’s career was stalling, mostly due to his problems with drugs. As he cleaned up his act, he also wanted to rebound with his music. Bob Johnston was hired as Cash’s new producer and fell in love with Cash’s idea to do a live album in front of inmates.
One of Cash’s biggest hits was Folsom Prison Blues where he sings from the perspective of an inmate in Folsom who is serving a life sentence. Released in 1958, he would use this as the opening song for his tours. When Johnston started making calls, the first prison to respond was Folsom.
On January 13th 1968, Cash along with June Carter and others went to Folsom and performed twice at 9:40am and 12:40pm. The album is a composite of those two sessions with only two songs coming from the later one. The lineup contains a wide range of material including some novelty/comedic numbers about egg sucking dogs.
- Folsom Prison Blues 2:43
- Dark As The Dungeon 2:45
- I Still Miss Someone 1:57
- Cocaine Blues 2:47
- 25 Minutes To Go 3:12
- Orange Blossom Special 3:37
- The Long Black Veil 3:53
- Send A Picture Of Mother 2:24
- The Wall 1:36
- Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog 1:30
- Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart 2:15
- Jackson 3:20
- Give My Love To Rose 2:40
- I Got Stripes 1:48
- Green, Green Grass Of Home 2:30
- Greystone Chapel 6:07
[BEST TRACK: Folsom Prison Blues]
“Hello. I’m Jonny Cash.”
I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a movin’
And that’s what tortures me
[BEST TRACK FOLLOW UP: Jackson]
After a few goofy songs, June Carter joins Cash for a rendition of their popular song Jackson. Just when you think you’ve exhausted the possibilities for this album, she comes in halfway and injects a lightening bolt.
Well go on down to Jackson
Go ahead and wreck your health
Go play your hand you big-talkin’ man
Make a big fool of yourself
Yeah, go to Jackson
Go comb your hair
[BEST SURPRISE: Greystone Chapel]
Glen Sherly, inmate at Folsom Prison, was in for a surprise when he showed up for the morning session:
“The night before I was going to record at Folsom prison, I got to the motel and a preacher friend of mine brought me a tape of a song called “Greystone Chapel.” He said a convict had written it about the chapel at Folsom. I listened to it one time and I said, “I’ve got to do this in the show tomorrow.” So I stayed up and learned it, and the next day the preacher had him in the front row.” – Johnny Cash.
Now there’s greystone chapel here at Folsom
Stands a hundred years old made of granite rock
It takes a ring of keys to move here at Folsom
But the door to the House of God is never locked.
[BEST NOVELTY SONG: Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart]
The range of songs is quite impressive. Not only do you have the serious material, you have complete goofball stuff. The comedic songs span from dark (such as 25 minutes to Go which counts-down the last moments of someone on death row) but also wordplay. Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart recounts, in humorous ways, how the narrator has lost out on love.
In the garbage disposal of you dreams I’ve been ground up dear
On the river of your plans I’m up the creek
Up the elevator of your future I’ve been shafted
On the calendar of your events I’m last week
Best live album ever.
Other People’s Takes:
- Raise My Glass to the B-Side: “Simply put, this record encapsulates everything there is to know about Cash – the rebel, the country boy, the lover, the loser, the entertainer and the religious devotee.”
- Mississippi Books Page: “Just as At Folsom Prison would provide Cash’s career a shot in the arm, it also rehydrated country music from its own drought of sorts. In 1968, the musical order of the day was psychedelic and soul.”
- You Can’t Make This Up: “At Folsom Prison” lands at #1 on the Country chart and got Cash his own TV series the following year. He cites it as one of his greatest accomplishments, as it helps draw attention to the plight of prisoners.”