“I thought I’d come out and introduce myself and sing.”
January 13, 2018 5:54 AM   Subscribe

January 13, 1968. “Hello. I'm Johnny Cash.”
The gates of Folsom State Prison closed behind Gene Beley. It was 1968, and it was the first time the 28-year-old had ever been to state prison.

“When you walk through there and they shut that door,” he says, “you realize that many men who have that happen never see their freedom again. It’s pretty daunting.”

Unlike the people he met inside, though, Beley wasn’t there to do time. The young reporter for the Ventura Star-Free Press was there to see country music star Johnny Cash perform for the prisoners.
We’ve been invited to go to Folsom Prison with Johnny Cash,” Dan said. It was early January 1968. Dan Poush and I were a team, working for the Star-Free Press in Ventura, California. He was the photographer; I was the writer.

“Who invited us?” I asked.

“A minister I met at a New Year’s Eve party.” In that era such an invitation sounded dubious, especially when he added, “He’s one of Cash’s best friends.
While at the El Rancho, someone approached Cash, saying he'd been given a demo tape by a prisoner, Glen Sherley, of a song called "Greystone Chapel." Beley offered his tape recorder, so that Cash could listen to the song. Cash was so enamored with the song, he immediately took the tape and began writing down the lyrics and learning the song. Beley said he told Cash, "Let that guy out of prison he'll put you out of business."
Glen Sherley had a front-row seat in the prison’s drab cafeteria for the show. The convict was doing time for armed robbery. He had no idea that Cash had gotten hold of his song when Cash announced, “This song was written by our friend Glen Sherley. I hope we do your song justice, Glen.”
posted by ChuraChura (17 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Shel Silverstein, "A Front Row Seat to Hear Ole Johnny Sing"
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:04 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]

I love this recording. The cheering is so heartfelt and enthusiastic. You can tell the prisoners were just into it and so happy to have this brief respite from the time they were serving.

As an aside, Legend of John Henry's Hammer was my first introduction to Johnny Cash. It was paired with a cartoon we watched in Elementary school. I've been a life long fan ever since.

Also, this has me wondering if anything similar like this has happened recently? I cannot recall a contemporary singer/band performing in a concert setting like this for a prison. Hmm, I'm off to google.
posted by Fizz at 6:19 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]

Hmm, St. Anger? Though 2003 Metallica might be considered a cruel and unusual punishment.
posted by Artw at 6:41 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]

I love this album, and wish there was a second version without the between-song chatter (mostly because of the warden’s presentation of...leg irons?).

But that first “Ah’m Johnny Cash” always stops me in my tracks for a minute.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:00 AM on January 13 [3 favorites]

And they've taken on that message with a vengeance. Folsom has the Johnny Cash Trail, the Johnny Cash Bridge. The Folsom Parks Department is working on a multimillion-dollar art project, asking for donations, and putting Cash-related art along the entire Folsom bike trail.

On top of that, Cash's message of inclusion and rehabilitation was not lost on the city. It now embraces the prison, which is one of the state's largest employers.

This last paragraph is an odd statement. Johnny Cash was most definitely not in favour of “embracing” the prison-industrial complex. Quite the opposite, in fact.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:24 AM on January 13 [6 favorites]

posted by growabrain at 7:51 AM on January 13

Man, Shepley's story is heartbreaking.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:50 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]

I love that picture of Cash outside the gates. He's obviously posing for a publicity photo, but the look on his face suggests someone who's afraid that the guards will burst out of the gates and drag him in .
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:57 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]

Johnny Cash performed at San Quentin twice. B.B. King played there. Carlos Santana as well. Also the aforementioned Metallica record.
posted by ericales at 10:00 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]

Had this on in the background earlier, and I forget that for downright plum pitiful, you can't do much better than Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:31 AM on January 13

The chatter and audience reaction makes it for me.
posted by Artw at 12:00 PM on January 13

> Johnny Cash performed at San Quentin twice.

And one of those times Merle Haggard was in the audience.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:51 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]

Hey, metafilter's own! (I wrote the first piece.)
posted by mynameisluka at 8:29 AM on January 14 [3 favorites]

I love this recording. The cheering is so heartfelt and enthusiastic. You can tell the prisoners were just into it and so happy to have this brief respite from the time they were serving.
One thing I've heard from people who've listened to the original tapes is that the famous roar in the "shot a man in Reno" part was a studio fabrication: the inmates remained silent throughout each performance and cheered and applauded between pieces.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 8:41 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]

I couldn't remember your mefi name, mynameisluka, but you're metafilter's own in the tags!
posted by ChuraChura at 8:45 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]

I love Johnny Cash and I fucking adore that line in "Folsom Prison Blues": "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die."

That is bold. The narrator shot a man not for any good reason but because he just felt like it? There's no redemption arc or sad lesson to learn like "Don't Take Your Guns to Town", no good man done wrong like in "Long Black Veil" or "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", no religious conversion like half a dozen other songs of Johnny's. Just pure fucked-upedness.

And I love that in a prison full of people who made similar bad decisions, that's his leadoff song. Because he knew jail, if not prison, and he knew the experiences and the stories.
posted by librarylis at 7:24 PM on January 16

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