He also never flinched in his advocacy for improved conditions for prison inmates and the value of drug rehabilitation programs.
In July 1972, Cash and two former inmates testified before Congress on prison conditions.
Many things have changed over the past 50 years in the way the United States and California think about incarceration and the formerly incarcerated. One of the reasons for at least some of that change is Johnny Cash spotlighting the individuals behind bars and the treatment they received.
Cash was at Folsom multiple times, including November 8, 1966. Cash later described the prison audiences as being the most enthusiastic crowds he’d ever played for. A Sacramento Union photographer captured excitement from the inmates and the prison staff for the November 1966 outdoor concert. (Courtesy of Special Collections, UC Davis Library)
“I have seen and heard of things at some of the concerts that would chill the blood of the average citizen,” Cash told the Subcommittee on National Penitentiaries. “But I think possibly the blood of the average citizen needs to be chilled in order for public apathy and conviction to come about because right now we have 1972 problems and 1872 jails…. People have got to care in order for prison reform to come about.”
In 1967, word began to circulate among the inmates at Folsom that Cash was interested in audio-recording a prison show for an album in May. “JOHNNY CASH SHOW [TO BE] TAPED HERE” screams the headline on the front page of the April 6, 1967, issue of the inmate paper The Folsom Observer. However, scheduling problems delayed the actual recording until January 1968. The same story includes a “mug shot” taken of Cash by the prison in November of 1966 — likely taken for fun, as Cash never served time in Folsom or any other prison beyond an evening or two in a local jail.
During his time as a country music star, Johnny Cash was known as a voice for social awareness. He championed the plight of this country’s Native peoples with his Bitter Tears album. He welcomed Ray Charles onto ABC-TV’s The Johnny Cash Show, sharing a piano bench with him during the civil rights era.
The recorded concerts that served as the basis for Live at Folsom Prison (1968) and Live at San Quentin (1969) weren’t the only prison performances by Cash. In all, he did at least 30 prison concerts throughout the United States, including this one in 1980 at a California prison in Soledad.
Johnny Cash’s music resonates with empathy for inmates and the formerly incarcerated. At Folsom Prison, recorded live on January 13, 1968, and At San Quentin, recorded live on February 24, 1969 are touchstones in music history with songs like “Folsom Prison Blues,” and “I Walk the Line.”
50 Years ago – At Folsom Prison During his time as a country music star, Johnny Cash was known as a voice for social awareness. He championed the plight of this country’s Native peoples with