As a lifelong Johnny Cash fan, raised on country, gospel, blues and folk and all their outlaw cousins, I spent my adolescence listening to 1969’s Live from San Quentin and imagining the scene: Cash, who never served hard time, singing about prison life to hardened men who greeted him as kindred. Little did I know, wonders of the Internet to behold, that there is actual footage of the concert online. And so there it is above, and it’s great. Johnny mocks the guards, gets theatrically belligerent, and rocks out outlaw country style with “San Quentin,” voicing every prisoner’s grievances with his gravelly delivery. His glare is hypnotic, and the song plays over footage of armed guards on the fences and inmates marched in herds.
Of course, there’s no San Quentin without Cash’s first prison concert, 1968’s At Folsom Prison. The documentary below (with Swedish subtitles) opens with interviews from country stalwarts Marty Stuart and Cash’s daughter Roseanne; it’s an hour-long exploration of the Folsom prison concert and its import.
Cash loved giving these concerts, and he loved the men inside, not because he was one of them but because he knew he could have been if music hadn’t saved him. He gave another concert in 1977 at the Tennessee State Prison, but this recording never had the impact that those first two did. Cash’s appearances at Folsom and San Quentin in some ways defined his career as a writer and singer of outlaw songs who cared about the men who paid the price for law and order.
Josh Jones is a writer and scholar currently completing a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor.