Today marks the anniversary of one of Johnny Cash’s shows he gave at Folsom Prison. The live recording that came out of it remains one of the best in Cash’s cannon. It crackles with energy, is at times funny, profound, and just plain weird. It’s Cool Hand Luke on record.
Folsom Prison Blues is a song I haven’t played on the radio in a long time. I can’t remember the last time I did actually. There’s just too much to play and not enough time. Cash has so much music, that to play one of his songs during a three hour show becomes quite the choice. A rare Sun Records demo or a big 1960’s era hit? A latter day Rick Rubin caricature or a lost single from the 80’s? Combine that with the saturation his music has received since his passing and I sometimes forgo the whole thing and play Dick Curless instead. His absence from my playlists however should not be confused, however, with a lack of love. Sometimes the distance is what’s needed.
Today though, I found myself thinking about Johnny Cash and pulled out the Folsom Prison show. It’s been re-packaged 637 times since 1968 and I’ve lost track of which one I have. I do know, that I don’t have the original one I owned on cassette, and all things being equal I miss it. It wasn’t the whole show, but combined live performances from San Quentin as well. I lost it or gave it away or a tape deck ate it or someone lifted it, god knows, I don’t. It’s been replaced two or three times since then and bettered each time in terms of sound and completeness. I admit to enjoying the added material of both shows, but the thing I miss, if I were to put my finger smack on it, the moment I wait for that no longer comes, is during his San Quentin performance of Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue.” There’ s a line where he says “sonofabitch,” and you can hear it clear as bells on the new recording, but on that old cassette, much to my irritation years ago, there’s a long beeeep. I remember discussing how stupid this was with friends. He was in a prison after all! And now, years later, I miss it. That long ridiculous tone added a level of charm and hilarity to an already wonderful album. Reality really isn’t always better.
Love and theft. A borrowed melody is nothing new. A good phrase taken, a guitar run slipped into a solo. Johnny Cash wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” while stationed in Germany and assuredly after hearing Gordon Jenkins 1953 concept album Seven Dreams. There’s a sultry blues number on it called “The Crescent City Blues” and if you haven’t heard it before, I promise it will make you smile.
We all have our prisons.