January 13, 1968: Johnny Cash performs his most legendary concert – at Folsom Prison.

At Folsom Prison.
55 years ago, Johnny Cash gave one of the most legendary concerts of all time at Folsom Prison

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash performing in 1969. His concert at Folsom Prison, California, erected a memorial to himself

© Ronald Grant / Imago Images

Johnny Cash’s star seemed to be fading when he performed for a live album at the infamous Folsom Prison. The concert and record became legends – and made Cash a world star.

It all started as usual when Johnny Cash took the stage on January 13, 1968. As usual, the singer introduces himself with the words “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” before starting the first song. But that’s the only thing Cash’s performance that day had in common with his other concerts.

First of all, the time is unusual: it shows 9.40 in the morning when Cash opens the concert. And then, of course, the location: Johnny Cash plays in a prison — and not just any, but Folsom State Prison in California, after which he named one of his most famous songs years ago. The audience consisted of 2,000 prisoners, all criminals. It’s a concert like never before. Thus, that also brings with it many challenges.

His career seemed to be over at the age of 35

At the time, Cash had long been on the decline: although he was only 35 years old, his drug addiction was giving him a hard time, and public interest in his music had waned dramatically. The country star needs an achievement to turn things around. Which is why he returns to an idea he’s had for so long: a big prison concert.

Crime and criminals had always fascinated Cash, and he would often sing about them in his songs. He has also performed several times in small prisons. But the concert at the infamous Folsom Prison – the house number was very different.

First, because the prison near Sacramento is known for its criminals and harsh prison conditions, more than 90 inmates have been executed there. Secondly, because Cash himself had a special connection to this prison. While he was never a prisoner himself, his hit “Folsom Prison Blues,” which included the line “I shot a guy in Reno just to watch him die,” inspired him and made him a star in his early twenties in the USA.

It was also very convenient for Cash that personnel changes had just taken place at his Columbia label: Bob Johnston had been taken over by someone open to unorthodox ideas. Unlike his predecessors, Johnston was immediately enthusiastic at the suggestion of recording a live prison album and then releasing it and taking the planning into his own hands.

Johnny Cash in jail – close to the inmates

On the morning of January 13, 1968, the time came: Johnny Cash entered the stage made of boards nailed together, dead silent before the tense eyes of the waiting guests. They were told not to cheer until the singer introduced himself with his famous welcome words. “The atmosphere was tense,” recalled Cash biographer Robert Hilburn, who witnessed the party as a reporter. Guards with automatic rifles are ready to step in at any time.

Cash played for a little over an hour – and I got the feeling that he could be someone who might also be on the other side. Of course, “Folsom Prison Blues” was the beginning, the song that captured the listener’s attitude: “I haven’t seen sunshine ’cause I don’t know when / I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps dragging on.” But also songs like “Busted” or “I got stripes” that took life in prison.

Cash seems to be enjoying the performance, joking with the inmates (“This is all being recorded for an album, so don’t say ‘shit’ or anything, okay?”), as does his girlfriend June Carter, whom he brought with him for backup. Distraction from everyday life in prison seems to be the adults too. At the end, Cash performed “Greystone Chapel”, a song written by a prison inmate.

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The movie “At Folsom Prison” made him an international star

Strictly speaking, “Man in Black” played two concerts that day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Apparently, the label wasn’t quite sure if Cash would produce enough re-releasable material with the try. However, in retrospect, this concern turned out to be unfounded. The concert and record were a complete success, unfazed by the fact that Cash didn’t perform his biggest hit “Ring of Fire” ever.

“At Folsom Prison” has sold over six million copies and is considered one of the most important albums of all time. For Johnny Cash, who has already been written off by many, this was the beginning of the most successful period in his career.

Sources: “spiegel” / “Washington Post” / “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece” von Michael Streisgoth

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