Top 100 Album Review: #88 – At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash (1968)

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!

91cgDY8ocrL._SL1500_Rolling Stone’s Ranking: #88/100
My Rating: StarStarStarStarStar

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. Continue reading “Top 100 Album Review: #88 – At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash (1968)”