Since I was a very young lad, I've always had a great deal of access to this album. My father owned it on record and eight track, and there was always a dubbed cassette (dubbed from the eight track or the record) to be had. As soon as it became available on CD, I bought it for myself, and recently re-purchased it to replace a copy that had ten years worth of scratches on it.
In other words, I grew up loving this album and I still do.
Naturally, as a boy, I didn't understand the importance of what was going on here. I just knew that the music was great, that Johnny Cash had a very distinctive style, and that the crowd was really into what he was doing here. One can hear the cheering prisoners break through at several points on the album, most memorably at the opener just before he breaks into Folsom Prison Blues.
I didn't understand how or why the crowd was so fervent. I figured from the sound of it that he must be playing to an immense crowd, many many more than the 2,000 Folsom Prison inmates that he was actually performing for. I just knew that Cash was good and the crowd was into it for the whole length of the record.
Now, as a young man, I understand the majesty of what was going on here. The Man in Black came to a prison and belted out every prison song he knew (I Got Stripes, The Wall, 25 Minutes To Go, Cocaine Blues, and his own legendary Folsom Prison Blues). The prisoners, serving hard time at a very tough prison and absolutely desperate for entertainment, were completely into the show, and Johnny didn't let them down. He was absolutely at his peak as a musician and rather than just moving through a set list, he performed directly to the crowd.
He performed directly to the crowd. I think that sentence alone sums up the absolute magic of this concert. He played directly to them and connected with them in a way I have never heard or experienced. The music really forms a bond between Johnny and the inmates, and the magic stretches out of the recording and touches you as well.
Even at this point, Johnny Cash was a stage veteran. He'd been playing music for three decades by then, and his recent marriage to June Carter and his recovery from a drug addiction haze that had pretty much surrounded him for most of the 1960s had brought him to this point. He was clear-minded, newly married, and in complete mastery of his music. He had a great crowd before him and he knew just how to interact with them. The result was complete magic.
The styles are mixed: country, blues, rock, gospel, roots, and everything in between. There's a little something for everyone in a Johnny Cash recording; he deals with each genre and manages to fuse them together with a simple elegance.
But he mixes those styles together and his deep voice just takes control and drives the songs home. He's in complete control of the show and his showmanship and musical talent just take it on home. It's a magical gift to be able to completely control a show in every way, and he really has it working here.
The music is great, the feel of the concert and the sheer energy of the setting is great, but what really is amazing is the elements of prison life that carry over into the disc. The clanging prison doors, the interruption for a prison announcement, the reverb off of the walls of the prison; these just add together to make the disc sound even more special. It's not just a disc you skip around on, it's one you listen to from beginning to end.
Recently, the album was re-released in a version that includes the complete concert under the Columbia "American Milestones" series; the original 1968 LP was missing three songs. And the thing just got better. The profanity in the banter between Johnny Cash and the inmates is restored, as well as the remainder of the concert. The new liner notes are exquisite as well, with a handwritten note from Cash describing why he made the album and an appreciation from Steve Earle. This deluxe remaster totals fifty five minutes and forty nine seconds over nineteen tracks, and contains the complete uncensored version of the 1968 classic.
The album opens with Johnny saying simply, "Hello. I'm Johnny Cash," and the roar of the crowd. And just as quickly he breaks into the one song that everyone thinks of when they think of this album, Folsom Prison Blues (2:42). Originally recorded in 1955 in a studio in Nashville, this song, bookended by the roar of the crowd, this version is unquestionably the superior version of the track. It's country and rock and driven blues at the same time; it's truly a magic song and a killer way to open the album.
Busted (1:25) is a song about the difficulties of life, a bluesy number that just meanders along in its own way. The unusual repetitive guitar work makes this one click very well. This one didn't appear on the original LP; in fact, I hadn't heard this (or the other two ones) until recently, and it was very strange for me the first few times to not hear the deep intonations of the third track, Dark As The Dungeon (3:04) follow the opener. Now, it fits in there as smooth as can be. Dark, though, is another prison song on an album with many of them; it's a hard song about murder, drugs, and drinking that drives along with a cold but beautiful melancholy that complements the relative rousing sound of the album opener very well. The banter at the end is restored, with a bit of language that wouldn't fit into the LP; another nice touch that makes the remastered CD well worth getting.
I Still Miss Someone (1:38) is a pretty little straightforward sentimental ballad. It's about missing a loved one and already at this point in the album you can just feel the connection with the crowd; in my mind now I can almost picture the sea of inmates sitting there enrapt in this little number about being separated from a lover.
On the other hand is the uptempo Cocaine Blues (3:01), a driving number about drugs, murder, adultery, and prison. The song is a very catchy and driving little number, with Johnny almost chuckling a time or two during the song as it drives along. It is these little imperfections that make live albums so great to listen to; it's one take, not the best of an armload of them. This song is the unedited version of the one that appeared on the record; the last verse was chopped off on the record. At the end, a little prison announcement comes on over the intercom and seems to catch the singer off guard, another nice touch.
25 Minutes To Go (3:31), like his biggest hit A Boy Named Sue, was penned by Shel Silverstein. It's about a man waiting to die on death row, counting down the minutes until his execution and hoping against hope for a pardon from the governor. It's quite funny, even though it's truly a grim song; the conclusion is somehow both predictible and surprising.
The seventh track, Orange Blossom Special (3:01), is done with harmonica accompaniment rather than the usual violin. The mix of Cash's distinctive voice and the harmonica, guitar, and percussion makes this one really stand out, not only on this album but in comparison to the many other versions I've heard of this song. It's got a bit of improvisation in the lyrics that get a pop from the crowd, again showing Cash's mastery over the crowd here.
The Long Black Veil (3:58), after the audio wall that was the previous track, comes off as extremely sparse. The song is about a widow who desperately misses her dead husband and thus wears a black veil. The song is done a capella; just Cash's stark voice telling the tale of the sad widow.
The ninth track, Send a Picture To Mother (2:10), has only just a hint of acoustic guitar, mostly coming off as stripped down as the previous track. It almost comes off as a continuation of the previous track.
The Wall (1:36) is another prison song, with just a smidge more guitar work than the previous one. This one is about a failed prison break, a man who knew that he was going to fail and yet tried it anyway.
The crowd really gets into the next track, a comedic track called Dirty Old Egg-Suckin' Dog (1:30), intended to bring out a bit of comic relief after the string of grim songs that preceded it. The crowd seems to enjoy it, so he continues with another somewhat comedic track, Flushed From The Bathroom of Your Heart (2:17), which apparently features some physical banter with his wife, June Carter Cash, who was on stage with him. The crowd cheers quite loudly for the title, further demonstrating how in sync Cash was with the crowd.
The next track is another new one to this release. Joe Bean (2:25) starts off with some banter with someone in the crowd apparently named Joe Bean; the song itself is another stark piece about a murderer hung for his crimes at the age of twenty. The crowd is very silent during this piece, which makes the stripped-down sound come off very well.
The next two tracks are duets with his wife, June Carter Cash. The first is Jackson (3:12), a driving number about a cheating husband and his upset wife. The crowd goes mad for June, who was apparently quite attractive in her day. The superior number, though, is Give My Love To Rose (2:41), a much more melancholy number about love lost. The conclusion of the song shows the melancholic power of Johnny Cash's voice.
I Got Stripes (1:57) is an uptempo song that comes off like a prison version of Solomon Grundy. The harmonization with a large group during the choruses comes off very well, unquestionably the high point of this short track.
The seventeenth track is the longest on the album and one not included on the original LP. The Legend of John Henry's Hammer (7:08) is requested by someone from the crowd and the musicians play around with it at first, trying a few tempos before settling on a nice uptempo sound with a few breakdowns throughout it. It's more or less the standard version of John Henry with an interesting hammer sound throughout it (which may have been a hammer; I'm not sure).
Green, Green Grass of Home (2:29) is about a man who is freed from prison who goes home again. It's rather low-tempo, especially compared to the previous track, but it comes off quite well. The harmonization throughout much of the song helps to bring it off quite well.
The album closes with a song written by a man in the prison, who Cash introduces to open the song to a ton of applause from the crowd. The song, Greystone Chapel (6:02), is about a church in the prison and yes, it's a rather religious song. At roughly the four minute mark, a prison official breaks in with a couple announcements and introduces the assistant warden, who apparently locks Johnny in handcuffs for a moment. The last minute of the track is just sounds of the prison going back to regular life, with the clangs and sounds of doors opening and so forth.
Cash's following album, Live At San Quentin, is almost as great as this one, and it does have his biggest single, the Shel Silverstein-penned A Boy Named Sue. Also excellent is his 1994 album, American Recordings, and in the same vein, Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger. But for me, Folsom is just a truly amazing disc, one that I unquestionably deem an essential album.