Johnny Cash always had in mind to play his 1955 classic Folsom Prison Blues in front of the inmates crammed inside its walls. On January 13, 1968, his dream came true. There couldn’t have been a better audience for his collection of songs about guys who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, a who murdered his woman after snorting cocaine, that talk about the last 25 minutes before they hang them, or would rather die by hanging than confess he was in bed with his best friend’s wife...
From the moment the ‘Man in black’ took the stage, with his black acoustic Martin hanging off his shoulder, and said “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”, that performance became the defining moment in the career of the author of I Walk the Line, a moment in which, as his daughter Roseanne said, he knew exactly who he was and what he represented. A year earlier he had resolved his drug problem and now was willing to get back on top, while being hailed as the most important country artist of his time. It was behind the Folsom prison walls where he would make it.
Accompanied by his faithful Tennessee Three: Marshall Grant on bass, W.S. Holland on drums, and the inimitable Luther Perkins on electric guitar (with his Esquires and Telecasters, as he played that day, he would be one of the architects of the Cash sound, the one came up that sound known as ‘boom-chicka-boom’), Cash gave one of the best performances of his career, achieving such empathy from an audience of outcasts and outlaws, the same men he sang about in his songs. He also had the help of his wife June Carter, with whom he sang a couple of duets, Jackson and Give My Love to Rose, and his old friend from Sun Records, Carl Perkins, who opened the evening playing the immortal Blue Suede Shoes, probably with his old Gibson ES-5.
The record became his biggest success, although it was surpassed a year later by the live album in San Quentin, which boosted his career further, and made him the most respected figure in country music. That performance would define his career forever, a historical achievement reached at the worst of venues. A place where those words, written years before while he was in the army and watched a documentary on the famous prison, resonated with more force and left a profound impact:
“Well, if they freed me from that prison
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move over a little
Farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison
That’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle
Blow my blues away”.
*(As there is no footage of the performance at Folsom, we have taken the liberty to include clips of his legendary show at San Quentin in 1969, a year later, and without the great Luther Perkins in the band, since had passed away on August 5, 1968).