Posts Tagged “Johnny Cash”


February 11, 2009
Cinequest 19 Screener
87 Minutes
Bestor Cram

Out Of Darkness, Comes Light.

When the “Man In Black”, Johnny Cash was stationed at an Air Force Base in West Germany, he watched a movie from 1951 called “Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison,” which so inspired him that he later wrote a song about the prison, located just outside of Sacramento, California. The song, of course, is “Folsom Prison Blues”, which was released on December 15, 1955.

The documentary JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON will make the case that Mr. Cash may have heard an album by a songwriter named Gordon Jenkins who’s song “Seven Dreams” has verses which are a bit too similar to be coincidental. Regardless of Mr. Cash’s influences, the song became a hit, Mr. Cash began performing within the walls of prisons, and it was only a matter of time before he’d perform “Folsom Prison Blues” inside the actual Folsom Prison. He first performed there in 1966, and then on January 13, 1968, he returned with his band, the Tennessee Three, his wife, June Carter, Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers, a photographer, and a sound recording engineer. There is no filmed footage of the event.

In 1968, Cash was just getting over his drug addiction and was looking for a comeback opportunity. He had been performing at different prisons around the country and writing songs written from an inmate’s perspective. For the Folsom show, he and his band spent the day before learning a song that one of the Folsom inmates had written called “Greystone Chapel.” It was written by a singer-songwriter named Glen Sherley, whose children appear in this film. Sherley was given a seat in the front row and was shocked when the famous singer began strumming the song that he had written.

The parallel stories of Sherley and Cash are quite compelling. One man lived a life in prison and the other got credit for singing as if he knew what it was like on the inside. Cash once told country star Merle Haggard, who spent several years in the late 50s at San Quentin, “people think I’ve lived the life that you actually have.”

The film is fascinating. We hear interviews with Cash’s bandmates, his children, former guards and two former inmates who were there that day. There is rare footage taken inside the present-day walls of Folsom. There are dozens of photographs of the event and some songs that weren’t released on the 1968 album. And somehow, though he died in 2003, we hear audio of an interview that Cash did about the concert.

The album, “At Folsom Prison” was an instant success, quickly selling half a million copies. It resurrected Cash’s career and increased his fan base. If you saw WALK THE LINE, you’ll probably remember the scenes that took place at Folsom as the most exciting of the film. I mentioned above that there is no footage of the show, so director Bestor Cram, finds images for us to see while hearing the fantastic songs.

One that sticks out for me is “25 Minutes To Go” where a condemned man headed to death row is recounting his last 25 minutes. The film uses black and white animation which depicts the words of the song. It’s an exciting song to begin with, that excitement is intensified by hearing it sung in front of inmates who whoop and cheer specific lyrics, and the animation only adds to the power as a man eats his last meal, is visited by a preacher, and begins walking up the steps of the gallows.

Then the sheriff said boy, I’m gonna watch you die;
Got 19 minutes to go;
So I laughed in his face and I spit in his eye;
Got 18 minutes to go.

The inmates go crazy as the song gets louder and louder, and faster and faster, leading to the execution of the character.

Now here comes the preacher for to save my soul;
With 13 minutes to go;
And he’s talking bout burnin but I’m so cold;
I’ve got 12 more minutes to go.

This clip has been posted on youtube, and if it’s still there, the link is here:

The film is full of these performances and insightful interviews. After 40 years, the impact of this live album is still being felt. When you think of other live albums and how they changed a band or singer’s career, the list really isn’t that long. U2 at Red Rocks. The Who Live At Leeds. Cheap Trick at Budokan. Led Zeppelin, Queen, and Bruce Springsteen had to compile several dates and several venues to gather the right material for their live releases.

Live At Folsom Prison can be held up among the best live albums of all time. Cash needed a hit after reaching rock bottom. The prisoners were excited that anyone, let alone country music royalty was performing for them and Cash chose songs that appealed deeply to the inmates. The film adds interviews with major players, the story of the other musician, inmate Glen Sherley, and we see how these concerts cause Cash to become an advocate for prisoner’s rights. There is footage of him testifying before Congress.

I can’t wait to see this again on a big screen with big speakers.

Johnny Cast At Folsom Prison will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here:


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Written by Michael W. Cummins