Two Prison Concerts That Defined an Outlaw Singer: Johnny Cash at San Quentin and Folsom (1968–69)

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.

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  • Alissa Mower Clough says:

    My regard for him has only deep­ened through the years. From being a Father fig­ure to some strange peo­ple down South who had a show from a place where they could­n’t spell “Opera”, to being a man whose career and life strad­dled many divides, many con­tra­dic­tions (even some I don’t hold with m’self), and a tru­ly Chris­t­ian spir­it. I applaud and praise him. For he is in the words of Eccle­si­as­ti­cus, a Famous Man.

  • Anoth­er exam­ple of an Amer­i­can who made mis­takes and went on to become a loved and respect­ed man.

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