By Toby Olson
A banner runs across the bottom of the stage, “Welcome Johnny Cash.” It’s the only decoration in one of Folsom Prison’s harshly lit rec rooms. On stage: an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, an electric bass, a drum kit, a fiddle, and a harmonica.
Cash opens with “Folsom Prison Blues,” an attempt to capture the experience of the very individuals sitting in front of him. The raspy howls of the inmates at the sound of, “Time keeps draggin’ on,” “I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die,” and “When I hear that train a’comin, / I hang my head and sigh,” suggest that the inmates feel a strong resonance with Cash’s storytelling.
Deprived of an identity anywhere outside the walls of Folsom the prisoners are renewed in their joy for living. Cash speaks, through them, on unavoidable truths of life—touching on the inmates’ experiences, and yearning for their liberation.
In listening to At Folsom Prison (please listen to the first two songs, at least), it quickly becomes clear that the album’s success is due to the emotions of our shared human experience, and the ability of music and sound to cathartically release these feelings.
But the recording holds so much more than just a performance. It encapsulates an incredible feeling one might call spirituality, or perhaps presence. Every part of the crowd is enlivened, shouting for joy, laughing, crying, hollering. Music transformed Folsom Prison from a desolate trap into a Roman amphitheater.
Sure, music has obvious power, but folk music especially has, for millennia, uplifted and united the lonely. After all, folk (volk, in German) just means person.
The music is about commonality—the knowledge that inescapable pains of life are shared. Accepting this can momentarily make life worth living. (At least it seems to have done that to the prisoners of Folsom.)
The technological development of recording (and all forms of artistic reproducibility in the wake of industrialization) presupposes our current notions on art. Recording especially revolutionized the laymans ability to experience sound. Where once the average person had to experience music in communal areas with groups of people, individuals now listen in a world of their own, listening exclusively with personal interpretations.
Folk music was typically performed at local establishments in small towns, relying on familiar melodies and stories to engage the audience and allow for memorization.
The process by which songs like “Stand By Me,” “My Girl,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Orange Blossom Special,” or even “This Land is Your Land” were recorded is similar to the process by which the Iliad or the Odyssey were written. The authors are unknown, and the lyrics passed on through generations of verbal performances until technology came around to cement one version of the poem into “recorded” history, under names like Ben E. King, The Temptations, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, and of course, Homer.
The communal and moral elements of folk music foster a sense of collaboration rather than exaltation of the performer. Walter Benjamin argues that this phenomenon is rare for “art in the age of its technological reproducibility.” He elaborates on how the aura of a piece is lost in its mechanical reproduction. I would consider At Folsom Prison to be a rare exception to this typically accurate observation. The album accentuates the folk music genre’s history of uplifting and unifying egalitarianism typically restricted to small, non recorded performances.
At Folsom Prison’s tracklist is split into two discernible perspectives. Most, like “Folsom Prison Blues,” see Cash sing in first person from the perspective of a prisoner (one song, “Greystone Chapel,” was actually written by an inmate, Glen Shirley). The remainder of the songs are written in the second person, instructing (or preaching to) the audience. These songs are typically authorless, covered by folk singers over decades before the mass production of records.
Both categories’ songs naturally address classic folk themes: Love, death, loneliness, intoxication, deceit, and of course murder. My personal favorite is “Dark as a Dungeon,” the second song on the album. The first recording was likely made by Merle Travis in 1947, but based on the variety of covers, and the prisoners clear familiarity with the song, it’s quite clear that its roots sink far deeper into American folk history.
The song is an extended metaphor about desire:
“The dark dreary mines” are a vehicle for exposing the dingy yet opportune allure of hedonism.
The song addresses the crowd, “oh come all you young fellers;” it’s a plea (fittingly this type of invitation to the listener is characteristic of poems that rely on recitation and memory through generations). The author warns not to “seek fortune in the dark dreary mines,” though, “a man may have lust for the lure of the mines,” one must resist, lest “the stream of your blood run black as the coal.”
The heart in Cash’s voice is almost ironic when considering that the warning in the song is overdue. The listeners are already incarcerated, ostensibly due to their moral shortcomings.
It is reasonable, then, to consider that the inmates resonate with the perspective of the author. They regret their mistakes, yet howl in catharsis with Cash. You can hear a man half laugh, half burst into tears at “it’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines.” These men are in the mines. They feel as though their “blood runs dark as the coal.” They know that in their lives, “danger is doubled / pleasures are few,” but more importantly they are heard. Cash is speaking through them, momentarily liberating them from their crimes and their ills.
Directly after, at the start of the second verse, Cash informs the crowd “its being recorded, I know, Hell!” As Cash continues singing, “like a fiend with his dope / like a drunkard with his wine,” the crowd raises its voice and yells until the recording is overrun with applause and Cash must raise his voice to resound over it. It’s truly moving. The hairs on my neck perk up every time I hear it. After the crowd is alerted to the fact that they’re being recorded, they become an active part of the performance.
The next song that sticks out to me is “Green, Green Grass of Home.” Another one riddled with irony: most of the men listening will not “touch the green, green grass of home” ever again—that is until Cash gets to the end of the song, singing, “Yes, they’ll all come to see me / In the shade of the old oak tree / As they lay me ‘neath the green / green grass of home.”
Another moment of echoing applause. It’s a reminder to the prisoners, and to us as listeners that the pains of life simply end at death. Though the inmates at Folsom may feel isolated or disconnected from their fellow man, we all share the phenomenon of death. We all take our place in the ground and communally experience the inevitable forces of time and nature. Though morbid (and not an advertisement for death) this theme is as moving as it is indiscriminate.
I wondered why I had such a strong reaction. It’s a live album, the crowd is going to add to its effect. The difference here is found both in the values of folk music and the technology of recording, which in that moment gave inmates at Folsom the ability to participate in the musical experience and have it immortalized through mass production.
The inmates both resonate with the dark yet uplifting content of the music, and vocally participate in the production. (In a sense, that I guess can be compared to adlibs in a rap song.) After learning that they are being recorded, the prisoners feel a renewed sense of identity with the knowledge that countless people will hear their voices. In this way, At Folsom Prison captures a phenomenon usually restricted to non-recorded music, all while the fact that it is recorded empowers the live listeners to feel the pains and joys of life through Cash.
Johnny Cash’s career completely turned around after his recording at Folsom Prison. He was struggling with a cocaine addiction and hadn’t reached a financially stable level of acclaim. Though his presence on stage is commanding as ever, it stands to reason that the success of the album is in part thanks to the crowd as an active participant in the recording. The undeniable fervor present in every sound the crowd makes resounds as a truth about folklore’s ability to unite people over a shared history. It also shows a separate but intertwined truth about music’s ability as an art medium to release deeply entrenched human feelings.
I share this because being in a university setting can and will challenge your identity. The inmates and Cash demonstrate for us that though we all experience life from our own unique perspective. Whether we’re inmates, Air Force technicians (like Johnny Cash when he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues”), or students, we all take on certain identities that assert authority over our ability to recognize ourselves as individuals. The assimilating power of prisons contributes to the desperation the inmates at Folsom felt, the way Cash felt in the Air Force writing “Folsom Prison Blues,” or the way a student feels when they just can’t get out of bed and face another day. These feelings are completely incomparable; I don’t know how a death row inmate feels. Yet there is an incredibly uplifting space between the most incomprehensible personal feelings and the most vague natural tropes. Folk music enables us all to connect to our shared history. It’s even more powerful when experienced around other people in real time. At Folsom Prison presents us with the idea that we are undeniably different and yet comically the same. Accepting the latter is the best way to accept ourselves as the former.
Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison, Spotify
Benjamin, Walter. 2008. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Translated by J. A. Underwood.