January 1968: Johnny Cash and his people enter the gates of Folsom, a California maximum security prison. The singer has spent years performing for free in prisons but today he intends to record an album. A whole novelty: some folklorists have explored these institutions looking for the music of the prisoners; now he is an artist from outsidewho wants to boast of singing before those tough men.
No problem there – the inmates believed Cash was one of their own (he hardly had a criminal record, actually). Yes, he wrote the formidable “Folsom Prison Blues” but inspired by a movie, not by direct experience. The reluctance came from his record company, which thought it was a bad idea to identify Johnny with that universe of pain.
At that time, it was still assumed that prisons should contribute to the rehabilitation of convicts. Even Ronald Reagan, the newly elected governor of California, visited Johnny Cash and his gang, who were rehearsing at a motel, to wish them good luck. Today it would be unlikely that a politician would benevolently approach such a glassy issue.
The resulting disk, At Folsom Prison, would dramatically reinforce the image of Cash: the vocalist respected by murderers and robbers. Tricks were used to highlight the empathy between artist and listeners: Producer Bob Johnston turned up the ambient ruckus when Cash sang the “I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die.” The album was carefully constructed: Johnny’s voice fails in one of the most brutal stories, “Cocaine Blues”, and that affects the following songs; Cash insistently asks for a glass of water. It was left like that, although they had alternative takes: that day they gave two concerts and both were recorded (they came out in the Legacy Edition 2008). The repertoire included rockabilly, gospel, and even recitals. Very cleverly, Cash and Johnston prioritized the bleakest songs.
It worked, in every way. Thirteen months later, they would repeat the play in an even more intimidating venue. At San Quentin it sounds better and shows a relaxed Johnny, swearing that is covered with beeps. A friendlier album came out, which generated great success, in the form of the humorous “A Boy Named Sue”, where the protagonist seeks his father, willing to take revenge for being baptized with a female name.
In Johnny’s lifetime, a third prison album would come out, At Österåker, registered in a prison on the outskirts of Stockholm. Aside from allowing us to hear Cash speaking Swedish, it includes a couple of good performances from Kris Kristofferson’s repertoire. Not that he lacked prison songs: he even released a fun creation of his own, “City Jail”, where he plays a loudmouth, arrested and beaten for trying to flirt with a waitress.
I was going to say that there was a fashion for records made behind bars but no, there were a few, by brave people like BB King, Big Mama Thornton, Marvin Santiago or Eddie Palmieri. At present, such gestures would be impossible: the balance between correction and revenge seems to lean towards the second option.