Today is the birthday of Johnny Cash, who died in 2003 at the age of 71.
In 1968 Johnny Cash revived his moribund career with At Folsom Prison, an LP recorded live at the CA state penitentiary, and followed it, in 1969, with At San Quentin. One day in the summer not long after the latter album was released my dad brought them home and sat in the kitchen listening to them. This was memorable because I was about 10 and there’s quite a bit of profanity on the San Quentin album and my dad, out of deference to his good Catholic wife, never used profanity around the house. But he was chuckling at Johnny’s use of it. He also rarely smoked in the kitchen after the kids were up, but he did that day.
That was the first time I heard “Folsom Prison Blues,” with which Cash opens his Folsom Prison album and ends his San Quentin album. It got released as a 45 too, from the Folsom Prison LP. Then, when Cash’s TV show debuted (with Bob Dylan on the 1st program, I might add), the song became ultra-familiar because he tended to open the show with it.
It was not until much later that I heard the original recording for Sun Studios. It’s good to hear Johnny Cash back in 1956, the way admirers like Dylan (then Robert Zimmerman) would’ve heard him. Cash, the manly entertainer at prisons, and Cash the TV showman came later.
In Walk the Line, the film based on Cash’s life, the part when Cash first plays this song for Sam Phillips of Sun Studios is one of my favorite scenes. Whether or not it’s true to life (it’s true Cash wrote the song while in the army and after seeing the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison), the scene indicates that the song is a significant departure from the kinds of songs one tended to hear in the Fifties. And that’s something I’ve always admired about the song: its sentiments are well thought-out. From the mama who told the singer to “always be a good boy / don’t ever play with guns” we move immediately to “but I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die.” This guy is a borderline psychopath, we might say. In any case, the combination of mama and cold-hearted killer (or cold-blooded killer remembering mama) is amazing.
Then his dream of being more considerate to inmates: “if that railroad train was mine” he’d move it “a little further down the line” so no one else need be tortured by its proximity to the prison. And then the great line that gives us the train song over the prison song: “and I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.”
This is one of my favorite songs, bar none. It’s so easy to play, and maybe that’s part of it. It seems like something a guy killing time in prison might pick up a guitar and pick out. Its version of the state of the speaker is complex and shows a grasp of realities that no doubt struck a chord of reality with an ex-Marine like my old man.