Jim Devereux recalls when Johnny Cash performed at Folsom Prison,
50 years ago
Folsom Prison Blues is one of the most iconic Johnny Cash songs and is forever associated with his live recording before an audience of inmates at Folsom Prison 50 years ago.
Cash’s interest in Folsom Prison stretched back to 1953 when he watched the documentary ‘Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison’ which moved him to write the original song, which was released as his second single on Sun Records. The song was popular amongst prison inmates and encouraged Cash to perform live at several prisons, beginning with Huntsville State Prison in 1957.
After considerable success in the early part of his career, by the mid-1960s Cash’s popularity was on the wane, partly because of his spiralling drug problems and consequent erratic behaviour.
In 1967, Cash, invigorated by his burgeoning relationship with fellow country singer, June Carter, finally took steps to resolve his drug addiction and persuaded his record company, Columbia Records, to support his plan to record a live album at a prison. Cash’s producer, Bob Johnston, approached San Quentin State Prison and Folsom Prison, both located in California, and Folsom was the first to reply.
Alongside Johnny Cash, the line-up for the concert included his future wife, June Carter, his backing band, the Tennessee Three, the Statler Brothers and rock ‘n’ roll legend, Carl Perkins.
At the rehearsals on 12th January, Ronald Reagan, the then Governor of California, dropped in to wish the performers well.
One of the songs that Cash, and his band were anxious to rehearse was Greystone Chapel which had been written by a Folsom Prison inmate, Glen Sherley. The song was given to Cash by his friend, the Reverend Floyd Gressett, who provided counselling to the prisoners.