“Never before had his music seemed so vigorous as it does here, nor had he tied together his humor, gravity, and spirituality in one record. In every sense, it was a breakthrough, but more than that, At Folsom Prison is the quintessential Johnny Cash  album, the place where his legend burns bright and eternal.”
(lifted from allmusic.com, a review by Stephen Erlewine)

The Making of ‘At Folsom Prison’: Another Johnny Cash Concept Album 1

Cash and Prison

Mutually, Johnny Cash loves to perform in prisons and so do the prisoners love his presence. It stands to reason then that he thought of doing a live album recording in that venue. His former producers were not interested so enter a new one, Bob Johnson who went with Johnny’s idea.

On January 13, 1968 at Folsom State Prison in Repressa, California, they recorded the live concert which became the “At Folsom Prison” album. There were two performances; one at 9:40 am and another 12:30 PM. In kinship with the prisoners, Johnny picked songs that the prisoners were able to relate to. Highlights were, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “25 Minutes to Go”, “Cocaine Blues”, “The Wall”, “Jackson”, & “I Got Stripes”.

As for his performance, I’ll quote Stephen Erlewine again:

“..what’s striking about Cash’s performance is that he never romanticizes either the crime or the criminals: if anything, he underplays the seriousness with his matter-of-fact ballad delivery or how he throws out wry jokes. Cash is relating to the prisoners and he’s entertaining them too,..”

In other words, there was a balance of stating things matter of factly while establishing rapport with the prisoners. What made him effective perhaps was that he had also been jailed not just once but a couple of times. His arrest in El Paso, TX was the most publicized.

On October 19, 1999, the album was released again. This time, it included liner notes with Cash’s handwriting. It states;

The culture of a thousand years is shattered with the clanging of the cell door behind you. Life outside, behind you immediately becomes unreal. You begin to not care that it exists. All you have with you in the cell is your bare animal instincts.

I speak partly from experience. I have been behind bars a few times. Sometimes of my own volition sometimes involuntarily. Each time, I felt the same feeling of kinship with my fellow prisoners.

Behind the bars, locked out from “society,” you’re being rehabilitated, corrected, re-briefed, re-educated on life itself, without you having the opportunity of really reliving it. You’re the object of a widely planned program combining isolation, punishment, taming, briefing, etc., designed to make you sorry for your mistakes, to re-enlighten you on what you should and shouldn’t do outside, so that when you’re released, if you ever are, you can come out clean, to a world that’s supposed to welcome you and forgive you.

Can it work??? “Hell NO.” you say. How could this torment possibly do anybody any good…..But then, why else are you locked in?

You sit on your cold, steel mattresses bunk and watch a cockroach crawl out from under the filthy commode, and you don’t kill it. You envy the roach as you watch it crawl out under the cell door.

Down the cell block you hear a steel door open, then close. Like every other man that hears it, your first unconscious thought reaction is that it’s someone coming to let you out, but you know it isn’t.

You count the steel bars on the door so many times that you hate yourself for it. Your big accomplishment for the day is a mathematical deduction. You are positive of this, and only this: There are nine vertical, and sixteen horizontal bars on your door.

Down the hall another door opens and closes, then a guard walks by without looking at you, and on out another door.

You’d like to say that you are waiting for something, but nothing ever happens. There is nothing to look forward to.

You make friends in the prison. You become one in a “clique,” whose purpose is nothing. Nobody is richer or poorer than the other. The only way wealth is measured is by the amount of tobacco a man has, or “Duffy’s Hay” as tobacco is called.

All of you have had the same things snuffed out of your lives. Everything it seems that makes a man a man. A woman, money, a family, a job, the open road, the city, the country, ambition, power, success, failure – a million things.

Outside your cellblock is a wall. Outside that wall is another wall. It’s twenty feet high, and its granite blocks go down another eight feet in the ground. You know you’re here to stay, and for some reason, you’d like to stay alive–and not rot.

“Prisoners are the greatest audience that an entertainer can perform for.

So for the fourth time I have done so in California, I brought my show to Folsom. Prisoners are the greatest audience that an entertainer can perform for. We bring them a ray of sunshine in their dungeon and they’re not ashamed to respond and show their appreciation. And after six years of talking, I finally found the man who would listen at Columbia Records. Bob Johnston believed me when I told him that a prison would be the place to record an album live.

Here’s the proof. Listen closely to this album and you hear in the background the clanging of the doors, the shrill of the whistle, the shout of the men…even laughter from men who had forgotten how to laugh.

But mostly you’ll feel the electricity, and hear the single pulsation of two thousand heartbeats in men who have had their hearts torn out, as well as their minds, their nervous systems, and their souls.

Hear the sounds of the men, the convicts all brothers of mine with the Folsom Prison Blues.

–Johnny Cash