Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Streissguth

Michael Streissguth’s Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece is an enthusiast’s dissection of one of Cash’s most revered records, essentially an extended entry in Da Capo’s 33 1/3 album series, punctuated by a wealth of candid photos (mostly from the lens of Jim Marshall). Using his own extensive research and interviews with Cash and his band/entourage, Streissguth recreates the legendary day that Cash stepped inside Folsom’s walls and put history to tape.

Streissguth’s surgical focus traces Cash’s mounting desire to empathize with the working class through his music, leading to the concept of recording a live album in front of a crowd of prisoners. As Streissguth tells the tale, Cash didn’t secure the gig easily; CBS Records president Clive Davis dismissed the idea as a career destroyer, leaving Bob Dylan’s maverick producer Bob Johnston to be At Folsom Prison‘s primary enabler. Once the performance had been recorded and readied for release, the greatest battle came in the form of Columbia’s flaccid promotion and the public’s slow acclimation to the raw, country-flavored product at a time when expansive, psychedelic music was king. (It didn’t help matters that the record boasted unrepentant lines like “I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die” in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.) Streissguth leaves no small fact unturned, issuing a flood of insight and education with an archivist’s glee.

Yet the most interesting aspect of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece is its deconstruction of the myths upon which the album itself was based. Streissguth weaves together a number of tiny details (some quite revelatory) that illustrate the need for an embellishment of truth and encouragement of assumptions in order to turn a masterpiece into a best-seller. From the genesis of Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” (based not on prison experience, but the long-forgotten B-movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison) to the album’s rowdy, hyper-reality (Johnston spliced in not only the thunderous P.A. announcements, but the unforgettable holler following the famous “I shot a man in Reno” line) to the media’s construction of Cash’s outlaw image, Streissguth’s analysis is nothing short of illuminating. It’s fascinating to note that Cash based songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” on “Hollywood dramatics [and] solitude in Landsberg [his station while in the air force]”, only to have such normal beginnings translate, through a sort of artistic osmosis and media inflation, into the intimidating, almost grandfatherly role of the Man in Black. Cash’s audience — many of its members new converts following At Folsom Prison‘s huge success — expected him to spearhead this semi-constructed outlaw movement; Cash, seizing the opportunity to exploit his roles as humanitarian and showman, obliged.

Streissguth intermittently refers to the lives of two of Folsom’s inmates, Millard Dedmon and Glen Sherley; the latter’s story is especially intriguing, as he wrote At Folsom Prison‘s “Greystone Chapel” and would later parlay his connection with Cash’s prison reform politics into a turbulent parole. These forks in the road of Streissguth’s narrative help Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece read more like an intricate story than mere historical account. Likewise, Streissguth’s stylized prose often yields inspired, visual passages, like his oppressive description of Folsom Prison:

Indeed, Folsom growls at visitors, however long they plan to stay. Inside, sharply textured granite walls are as thick as the length of a man, and they rise to high ceilings that stretch out over the inmates like a steel sky. Windows line the top walls, far out of reach of the prisoners, permitting only a muted light which drifts down to the cell block floors, like a fog. The dirty glow inside reveals a maze, a series of box-like rooms and rifle-barrel corridors through which citizens circulate from cell to job to mess hall to exercise yard to cell. Halfway up the walls, perched on gunwalks, unsmiling prison guards peer down on the daily commute, ready to cut down with their polished rifles anyone who would disrupt the gray routine.

The centerpiece of the book finds Streissguth arguing that At Folsom Prison has been misrepresented by tastemakers and carelessly stricken from the canon of important ’60s albums. He convincingly corrects that misfiling, placing Cash’s career-altering crown achievement in the upper echelon, typically reserved for ’60s luminaries like the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Dylan. To restructure our assessment of the classics, Streissguth insists that we disregard the decade’s “emphasis on experimentation and reinvention”, focusing “instead on the value the decade placed on solidarity with the disenfranchised in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, [and] Robert F. Kennedy”. At Folsom Prison, Streissguth argues, is a true social statement rather than a colorful social barometer. While the ’60s was a time of counter-culture revolution and political upheaval, its trademark music is, in hindsight, not so directly linked to its ideology: rather simplistically, the Beatles can be reduced to sonic experimentation, the Beach Boys to melodic and harmonic invention, Dylan to poetics. In contrast, Streissguth suggests, Cash’s At Folsom Prison is a truer representation of the decade’s attempted restructuring of the political and social hierarchy. Cash’s lyricism succeeded while his pop contemporaries “failed as commentary on the major social and political issues of the day”.

Following At Folsom Prison‘s success, Live at San Quentin was released the following year, a blatant attempt for record executives (and, perhaps, Cash himself) to exploit the newfound formula. “Considered side by side, San Quentin is an eraser brushing across a chalkboard while Folsom is jagged fingernails scraping down the slate,” Streissguth frankly states in his book. “In the first show at Folsom (from which virtually all of the album is culled), Cash surrendered to his heart; at San Quentin, Cash could have been taking cues from a director.” The Folsom experience, as told by Streissguth, courted serendipity, subsisting on the knowledge that it was an entirely unknown thing, reconstructing myths and fables in its wake.