“At Folsom Prison:” escape to simplicity

Outdoor concert Johnny Cash accompanied by Clay Smith, West Palm Beach – Photo by Charlene Smith, Wikimedia Commons

Trains, cocaine, uxoricide: Johnny Cash’s Live Album “At Folsom Prison,” regarded as a true foundation for country music, provides something not often glorified in today’s culture —  in fact, something often shamed and discouraged.

Regarded as a true Nashville hero, Cash performed against the advice of his agents in the Folsom Prison in California in 1968. Notorious as one of the first maximum security prisons in the United States, Cash had the highlight of the concert years before, “Folsom Prison Blues.”

A little background on Cash. He portrayed himself as the savior of the common man. He grew up in a small farm town and was raised Christian. To be frank, Cash and his music scream straight white Christian man, something often overlooked, if not discouraged, in today’s pop culture. While Cash wrote this in a time where few would argue the white man was considered unfashionable, listening to Cash now is interesting, because he plays for an audience not often focused on today in the music industry. 

History.com article about Cash’s Performance, 1968 – Photo by Gabe Gowen ’21

Another interesting aspect of this particular work: its location. Whether Cash truly felt sympathy for the prisoners and wanted to perform for them, or was simply using them to contribute his his image as Tennessee’s “bad boy,” his performing in prison added another layer of intrigue to the lyrics he sings in songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Cocaine Blues,” both of which feature protagonists who are outcasts and criminals. 

“you can’t say “hell” or “sh**” or anything like that.”

Johnny Cash

In the opening song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” Cash sings from the perspective of a man who “shot a man just to watch him die,” despite his mother asking him to never “play with guns.” In “Cocaine Blues,” Cash walks us through the story of a man who killed his wife when high on cocaine, and the repercussions of his actions, which land him in Folsom Prison. Cash, once again, dances along his reputation as a criminal and a bad boy, which later spawned the “outlaw country” of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and David Allan Coe in the next decade.

The final significant contribution to Cash’s infamy in this performance occurs between the second and third songs, “Dark as the Dungeon” and “I Still Miss Someone,” respectively. Since the concert was recorded by Columbia records, Cash announced to the convict group you can’t say “hell or shit or anything like that.” The true art of the album, shown both in this and the lyrics in the previously mentioned songs, lies in Cash’s outstanding ability to relate to the audience enjoying him. His music truly is for all. 

This recording optimized Cash’s other main appeal: his simplicity and commonness. Aside from some shocking lyrics, simplicity dominated the remainder of Cash’s concert. He recycles the same strumming pattern throughout the recording, and uses a tried and true blues chord progression. In doing so, he emphasizes the beauty of simplicity: the extraordinary nature of routine and tradition. My comment on his simplicity is not a knock. Cash’s guitar just chugs along. It is dull, it is easy, but it just does not stop, which is particularly motivational to hear in COVID. If that guitar keeps strumming that same chord progression, and those trains keep coming down the tracks, it seems only fair that we make it through one more day during this pandemic.

That is the awesomeness of “At Folsom Prison.” That is the art of Johnny Cash. 

Author: Gabe Gowen '21

Gabe Gowen ‘21 is a student in the journalism seminar. He participated in the English IV* program in the fall, and particularly enjoys trying to act as the voice of the common man at Haverford: something he finds often overlooked. Gowen plays on the Water Polo Team, is the Chairman of the Honor Council, and a member of the Notables.