Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison is one of the dozen or so albums that I continually return to. Its snapshot of a moment in time is history and entertainment rolled into a musically important package. (If you’re still listening to the original vinyl pressing, do yourself a favor and pick up the remastered CD from Legacy Recordings that includes the full, uncensored concert available for the first time.) I hear something new every time I hear it and have yet to tire of it. Even repeated listens to Cash’s stage patter somehow manage to retain freshness.
Folsom was not Cash’s first prison concert. He had been performing in front of inmates since the 1950s and had learned how to work the crowd. The choice of so many dark songs on the album was entirely deliberate, however off-the-cuff his comments may make it seem, and was meant, in part, to encourage his image as one of them. Appearing at the site of the inspiration of his big hit was supposed to bring events full circle; “Folsom Prison Blues” and Folsom Prison “should be united with tape rolling.” Cash, ever the businessman, was also well aware of the commercial potential of such an arrangement, that it would most likely result in a “fabulously electric album” of “damn good theater.”
Something so vital often inspires the listener to find out more about the circumstances behind it. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Streissguth attempts to fill that void, with mixed results. Along with the meat of the story (the events before, during, and just after the Folsom concert), Streissguth (editor of Ring of Fire: the Johnny Cash Reader) includes both a backstory and a continuance that are unnecessary except in how they connect to each other. His foray into Cash’s life history (and Folsom’s, including the sad story of “Greystone Chapel” songwriter Glen Sherley, and that of one inmate in particular who held no interest for me at all) connect only in the most minimal way to the central storyline — and the removal of a paragraph or two would sever that connection totally. (One legendary story had to be included, however: that of an inmate who was so inspired by one of Cash’s other prison concerts that he went on to become a country legend in his own right — Merle Haggard. Plus, Streissguth offers one revelation regarding the recording of the title tune that will likely shock readers.)
However, the text suffers from the author’s bland, unengaging prose style. As interested as I was in the subject matter, and as slim as the volume is (at less than 200 pages), the book was a trial to get through; there is a distinct feeling of bloat. He commits the sin (if such a case can be made) of being almost too complete. Streissguth repeats himself at least a couple of times, and the photographs that profusely illustrate the text (mostly from photographer Jim Marshall) tend to also retread familiar ground, often involving different angles or perspectives of the same scene. This seeming lack of editing distracts from the original intention of having the reader feel as if he or she is there watching as the events unfold. And, to top it all off, the amount of black ink required to conform to the “man in black” color scheme resulted in ink rubbing off of the cloth binding onto my fingers, forcing me into the incredibly distracting act of reading it with the dustjacket on.
To be fair, though, Michael Streissguth’s Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece doesn’t aspire to much higher than providing indepth coverage of a seminal moment, both in the career of Johnny Cash, and in music history in general. Despite its flaws, it does this job fully and; therefore, remains a must-have for Cash aficionados and music historians.
(Da Capo, 2004)