I can literally count the number of country music artists I like on one hand: Jimmie Rodgers (The Father of Country Music, not the 60’s pop singer), Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins and Johnny Cash. If we expand the definition to alt-country I’d add Townes Van Zandt and Neko Case. I dislike modern county music intensely, as it all sounds the same to me, like all the flavors have run together to produce inedible slop.
I will say that the few who are my favorites are musicians I like intensely and, in the language of the milieu, I have hankerings for them when I haven’t heard them in a while. Lately I’ve been hankering for Johnny Cash, so I thought I might as well go ahead and review my favorite album from The Man in Black.
At Folsom Prison is more than a record: it’s an education. While I pride myself on being culturally nimble and open to learning about the mores of a given society, it’s almost impossible for me to grasp the culture created by those who are incarcerated. In my brief post-college period in The City, I had an artist friend who had a part-time gig at San Francisco County Jail in some sort of art therapy program for inmates. I tagged along with her one evening just for the hell of it and the experience was humbling. I never really appreciated the loss of privacy and dignity, the depressing reality of being watched around the clock by people who neither care for you or trust you, and the stripping of what I would consider harmless privileges like taking a piss without people staring at you. The inmates I met were unsurprisingly hostile and suspicious, and took great joy in verbally abusing me with insider language I couldn’t begin to understand (except for the “Barbie Doll” references). These were women who were doing short stretches, not the lifers and long-term tenants at a place like Folsom.
We get a glimpse into that culture in the spirited opening number, though the perception of that culture is in fact filtered through production sleight-of-hand. When Johnny gets to the infamous line in “Folsom Prison Blues” where he sings, “But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” the crowd in the prison cafeteria appears with to roar with delight, as if freed from any stigma attached to such a despicable act. The impact is somewhat lessened when you learn that the cheer was added post-production, but the truth is that the inmates feared the guards would give them hell if they responded to any lines or comments about the prison. When considered with other spontaneous outbursts in the album (the applause Johnny hears on “Long Black Veil” after he sings the line, “I was in the arms of my best friend’s wife”) the insertion seems fair. This audience is peppered with men who do not have much use for The Ten Commandments or many of the a priori values of Judeo-Christian culture.
“Folsom Prison Blues” also demonstrates many of the musical qualities that make the entire performance a classic: spare arrangements, great energy from the performers, Johnny Cash’s command, and, above all, songs that dare you not to sing along. Even my pacifist father will sing that murderous line with genuine feeling, like he’s trying the role of homicidal maniac on for size. My personal sing-along favorite is the impossible-for-a-soprano number that comes next, Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon.” I puff out my already puffy chest and take a deep breath trying to follow Johnny down, down, down into the mine and to the depths of the scale, struggling to even hit the note an octave above that low E-flat (the tuning on this song seems to be off). But I have a great time doing it, even if (as my partner always reminds me) I look like a fucking idiot!
On the original record, Johnny’s little speech about the album being recorded is partially bleeped (the word is “shit”). I love it when he says, “How does that grab you, Bob?” and the inmates love it, too. I mean, shit, what’s the point of censoring language in a fucking prison, anyway? Would it have stunned the American public of the time to learn that criminals cuss?
Up next is the ballad, “I Still Miss Someone,” a songwriting collaboration between Johnny and his nephew, an acceptably sentimental song that serves to warm a few hearts in the audience and remind them of the ladies they’ve left behind. Another wonderful quality about At Folsom Prison is its emotional honesty: many of the songs selected deal with prison life, crime and the real and deep emotions that the inmates must struggle with on a daily basis. When you listen to the song in that context, it’s hard not to tear up a bit. Yeah, they’re bad guys, but they’re still human and capable of aching for those they left behind.
The strategic placement of “I Still Miss Someone” was probably designed to calm the boys down a bit before the hell-raising number, “Cocaine Blues.” Although the lyrics end with the admonition to “lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be,” the excitement and satisfaction comes from the revenge of the cuckolded lover, as ugly as that may seem. “I can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down” is an intensely satisfying line and it drives the crowd wild. The modern listener, accustomed to power chords and booming drums, may have a difficult time trying to explain how well this song rocks with its steady but relatively tame drumming, soft bass and hokey guitar. Don’t forget that the great rockabilly classics didn’t have much going for them in terms of power either, proving once again that the ability to rock is more about the feel and the passion than the production.
At the end of the song is one of the cold and impersonal announcements of visitors waiting in reception, where we’re reminded that last names and prison numbers are all the identity these people have left. It’s fortunate that the lighter song “25 Minutes to Go” comes next (and the fact that I’m calling a song about an impending execution “light” should speak volumes about the context). It’s followed by another train song, “Orange Blossom Special,” where Johnny gets the crowd moving with the help of a little harmoni-kai. At this point, Johnny tries another slow number, “Long Black Veil.” His guitar is clearly out of tune, but you’re so caught up in the dramatic energy of the concert that it hardly matters. It’s followed by another song about missing loved ones, “Send a Picture to Mother,” a song saved from excessive sentimentality by the simple fact that the son who sings the song has been locked up for seven long years.
The next song, penned by country songwriter Harlan Howard, could have been written by Jean-Paul Sartre, for the existentialist imagery in “The Wall” echoes his use of the wall as the symbol of despair at the possibility of a meaningless existence:
There’s a lot of strange men in cell block ten,
But the strangest of them all,
Was a friend of mine who spent his time
Just starin’ at the wall . . . starin’ at the wall.
No significant outbursts of laughter accompany this number, as Johnny’s tone alternates between head-shaking puzzlement and hushed empathy for the range of emotions the prisoner of the tale must have been experiencing while staring at that wall day after day after day. We appreciate the depth of thought that went into the song only when we hear the closing lines, “The newspapers called it a jailbreak plan, but I know it was suicide, I know it was suicide.”
After such heavy and intricate philosophy, praise be that Johnny Cash has a few corny songs in his song bag. These are two numbers from Jack Clement, “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” and “I’ve Been Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart.” The second one is the stronger piece, because it contains some of the most brilliant and painful puns in songwriting history, delivered with appropriately pregnant pauses by Mr. Cash:
In the garbage disposal of your 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.
I love strapping on my acoustic and singing this song for the family at the annual New Year’s Eve bash! It’s one of my signature songs!
It was a pretty gutsy move to bring a woman into a place full of guys whose sexual experience has been limited to hand jobs and hairy anuses, and even more gutsy to bring that woman on stage to assist in a song loaded with underlying sexual tension. “Jackson” gets Johnny and June together for some pretty hot foreplay, accentuated by June’s ability to transform into her voice into the sound of a growling saxophone. There’s good reason why they followed “Jackson” with “Give My Love to Rose,” because one more steamy number would likely have precipitated one hell of a prison riot.
The Statler Brothers come onstage for the next number, “I Got Stripes,” reminding me that I did indeed like their crossover hit “Flowers on the Wall.” It’s followed by the sad and somewhat sappy “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a song that has much more credibility when Johnny Cash sings it as opposed to the embarrassingly pandering voice of Tom Jones. At Folsom Prison fittingly ends with a number penned by an inmate, the gospel-flavored number “Greystone Chapel.” Although I’m opposed to Christianity in general, hey, when you’re in prison, you’ve got to find comfort and hope somewhere, and if that happens to be faith in Jesus, you have my blessing.
In preparation for this review, I finally got around to watching the biopic Walk the Line. All I can say is that anyone who thinks that Joaquin Phoenix sounded like Johnny Cash needs to make an appointment with an audiologist. No one sang like The Man in Black, and no one ever will.
I’ll close this review with a brief but powerful documentary of the experience of recording At Folsom Prison, emphasizing the personal courage and commitment to the forgotten dregs of society of Johnny Cash and all those who participated in this endeavor:
p. s. In preparation for this review, I finally got around to watching the biopic Walk the Line. All I can say is that anyone who thinks that Joaquin Phoenix sounded like Johnny Cash needs to make an appointment with an audiologist.