Saturday, November 9, 2013

Music Review: Johnny Cash at Folsom and at San Quentin

It's been a while since a CCC update, and this was partly because I was hard at work wrapping up my book manuscript, Cheap on Crime: How Recession-Era Politics Transform American Punishment, and sending it off to the good people at UC Press. For those wanting a wee preview, my paper with Ryan Newby Death Row Economics and my forthcoming paper The Inmate Export Business should give you a flavor of the book, though the framework will be much broader than in the papers. Until the manuscript reviews arrive, I'm working on some new and interesting projects, including one about marriage and companionship in California prisons in the post-DOMA era.

But in the meantime, I have been listening to some good music, including Johnny Cash's two albums recorded as live performances in prison: The famous 1968 performance at Folsom, and the 1969 performance at San Quentin.

Johnny Cash needs no introduction. At the time he started considering a performance in prison, he had already had several brushes with the law himself, and his formerly glamorous career suffered serious setbacks because of his increasing dependence on drugs. Having kicked the habit at the end of 1967, Cash, whose interest in Folsom Prison was awakened long before (his Folsom Prison Blues was written back in 1953) reached out to San Quentin and Folsom through his new manager, Bob Johnston, and Folsom responded first.

Listening to the witty, subversive tracks makes one wonder how it was possible to organize a performance of this scale behind bars. The photos accompanying the CD depict Cash in front of an audience of thousands. Notably, the audience is largely white in those pre-drug-war days. Putting the show together must have been a logistic nightmare, and that CDC was willing to put up with it for subversive, anti-prison, pro-inmate, funny songs from a man whose own legal background was shady, seems incredible in 2013. The only example I can think of is Metallica's performance at San Quentin. But Cash's songs are risky and revolutionary. His 25 Minutes to Go is a wry, gallows-humor account of the minutes before the execution. "San Quentin, what good do you think you do? Do you think I'll be different when you're through?" He sings elsewhere, and even says, "San Quentin, may you born in hell; may your walls fall and I will live to tell."

The inmates' immense cheer is palpable.

The other tracks are also subversive and funny, and Cash's rich voice rings jovial and powerful. The audience seems to be enjoying the performance a great deal; I bet they were expecting it for a long time. Highly, highly recommended.

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