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This 1951 Prison B-Movie Inspired “Folsom Prison Blues”

Johnny Cash’s live prison concert made him the voice for rehabilitation over punishment

Album cover for the Live At Folsom Prison album. (Daniel Hartwig/Flickr)
smithsonian.com

In case you hadn’t heard, Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno. But he did have a lifelong affinity with men who were serving time.

It wasn’t easy to convince his record label to let him play a live show at a prison, writes Joshua Pickard for Nooga.com. But Cash’s interest in visiting prisons continued, and on this day in 1968, Cash played a live show for the inmates of Folsom Prison. Cash’s inspiration was, partly, a movie called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.

Crane Wilbur, the filmmaker behind this and a lot of other B-movies, was responsible for movies about a lot of taboo topics, writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for A.V. Club. He worked with producer Bryan Foy. “They made movies about forced sterilization, teen pregnancy, human smuggling, drag racing, and sham spiritualists, and a whole lot of films about life behind bars,” he writes, including Folsom.

The movie is set in Folsom Prison in the 1920s, and tells the story of guards struggling over whether a prison should be a place of reform or punishment. It’s a classic prison movie: brutal guards, violent inmates, a riot. Although Folsom Prison went through prison reforms in 1944, writes Danny Robins for BBC, it was still a prison.

Cash saw the movie when he was in the Air Force, writes Robins, inspiring him to write his famous song, which “was sung with such raw menace that many assumed Cash knew what he was talking about,” she writes. But apart from one-night stays after being arrested for being drunk and disorderly, Cash never spent time in prison.

It was a hit among inmates, writes Alex Q. Arbuckle for Mashable, “with Cash receiving numerous letters begging him to come perform at various prisons.” Then after a decade of prison performances, as his career was slipping and he was struggling with drug problems, “Cash took the chance to propose recording a live album at a prison to give his career a shot in the arm.”

It worked, writes Robins. The growing civil rights movement was struggling with the issue of mass incarceration, and “Cash, an ardent believer in the power of rehabilitation over punishment, became the go-to voice for the media on this new hot topic.”

From a musical perspective, it also created a great album, writes Pickard. The vitality of the singer and his connection to his audience is easy to hear. The prison system also didn’t want anyone connecting with inmates on a personal level, Pickard writes. “In the eyes of the law, they were there to do time for their crimes, and that was it.” But something different was there for Cash, he writes: “It wasn’t that he saw innocent men in these jails, but he was able to see the men and not their crimes for a few hours — and maybe he allowed the inmates to see that for a brief period, as well.”

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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