Classic Album: Johnny Cash - At San Quentin

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
Johnny Cash - At San Quentin
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” These were the humble and open words with which the man in black greeted his audiences throughout his volatile career that ended with his death in 2003.

Since then posthumous music industry and Hollywood myth creation has increasingly made it difficult to gain an understanding of the man, generally accepted as one of the most significant musicians in the history of American popular music. A new edition of one of Cash’s most successful and personal works, ‘Johnny Cash At San Quentin’, is set to offer a rare insight into the man.
The album is a live recording of the concert given by Johnny Cash to the inmates of San Quentin

prison in 1969, following the similarly recorded Folsom prison show thirteen months earlier. In those days Cash played at prisons frequently, identifying with the men held in them, and had in fact played at San Quentin at the beginning of the Sixties. Long given classic status, the resulting record is exceptional, with Cash, backed by his band, the Tennessee Three, topping a bill including rockabilly king Carl Perkins, the four-part harmonies of the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family, with bluegrass and country pioneer Mother Maybelle Carter and June Carter Cash. Cash’s songs of personal and American history audibly resonant with the prison surroundings.

The original version of ‘At San Quentin’ was a 10-song LP; the deluxe edition features two CDs containing 31 selections and a DVD. The CDs boast an impressive 13 previously unissued songs from the concert to wow hardcore fans, but it is the 1969 documentary made for British TV, Johnny Cash In San Quentin, on the DVD that proves the greatest addition due to its abundance of rare footage of Cash playing. Taking a hard look at the extreme environment prisoners at San Quentin prison in the late Sixties experienced, it is both exhilarating and harrowing; Cash’s performance is interspersed with interviews, many searingly candid, with the prisoners and guards.

The concert came at a time when Cash was increasingly involved in the movement to improve conditions in prisons, taking the view that he had much in common with the inmates, whose first crime in life was being poor. Cash was deeply affected by his own family’s economic and personal struggles during the Depression, experiences that shaped him as a person and inspired many of his songs. At 37 the self-styled outlaw had been arrested several times, including an incident humorously related during the San Quentin concert where Cash was arrested for flower-picking in the early hours. A far cry from the violent crimes of the men he played to but Cash felt that but for his talent with a guitar he could easily fallen down that path. Cash was on the up himself at the time having married his soul mate June Carter after touring together for many years and returned to the religion that would eventually enable him to kick his ongoing difficulties with drink and drugs.

San Quentin Prison was, and remains, a maximum- security prison, the oldest in California having been established in 1852 and the only one in the state to contain a gas chamber. At the time of the concert the prison was notorious for its brutal and self-governing inmates. “We felt a great responsibility as the prison environment, and especially a maximum security prison like San Quentin, is far removed from that of conventional venues,” says Lou Robin, Johnny Cash’s manager and organiser of the San Quentin concert. “You can’t guarantee the safety of people inside there and we were particularly concerned about the women, June and Mrs Carter.

Some of the prisoners in there hadn’t seen a women in decades and once the doors shut we were cut-off from the outside world.”
“I remember thinking that there were not many guards on view. I asked the governor about this, saying there didn’t seem to be enough if the prisoners began rioting. He said that there were 100 guards but if the 1000 prisoners attending the concert did riot even treble that would not be enough to contain them. I realised then that the prisoners really policed themselves and that a prison like that is a law unto itself. In the later years we were no longer able to play maximum security prisons, as the authorities felt it too dangerous to allow.”

In this explosive atmosphere Cash produced a great performance that inspired the prisoners, as he had hoped, without risking bloodshed. “It was a very volatile situation but John kept a lid on it by controlling the prisoners with his playing,” say Robin. “Although he certainly provoked a strong reaction he was careful not to incite anything that could have led to chaos. Listening and watching the concert I was struck by the pecking order among the prisoners; this was interesting to me. Some of the prisoners were being served drinks by others and I guess that showed the sort of community that existed in there.”

A particular highlight of the set was the first ever performance of ‘A Boy Named Sue’, written just that day and greeted with hysterical laughter. This was opposed by the chilling performance of ‘San Quentin’, a song written by Cash from the perspective of the inmates and one of the most powerful moments of live music ever captured. “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell. May your walls fall and may I live to tell. May all the world forget you ever stood. And may all the world regret you did no good.” “I’m glad that great coverage exists of the concerts, as it is there for ever now and will help people see John as a real person and the issues that meant a lot to him,” says Robin. “It’s wonderful to have the record of the concert and it becomes more significant as time goes on.”

Words by Mike Hale

Released: June 4th 1969
Produced by: Bob Johnston

Track Listing: (Original)

01 ‘Wanted Man’
02 ‘Wreck Of The Old 97’
03 ‘I Walk The Line’
04 ‘Darling Companion’
05 ‘Starkville City Jail’
06 ‘San Quentin’
07 ‘San Quentin’
08 ‘A Boy Named Sue’
09 ‘Peace In The Valley’
10 ‘Folsom Prison Blues’

Musicians
Johnny Cash - Vocals, Guitar
June Carter Cash - Vocals
Carter Family - Vocals
Marshall Grant - Bass
W.S. Holland - Drums
Carl Perkins - Electric Guitar
Bob Wootton - Electric Guitar
The Statler Brothers - Vocals

1969: In the News
• Richard Nixon succeeds Lyndon Johnson as the 37th President of the USA
• John Lennon and Yoko Ono marry in Gibraltar.
• Charles Manson and the Family murders Sharon Tate and her friends at Roman Polanski's home in Los Angeles, California.
• The Woodstock Festival is held in upstate New York.

1969: Albums
‘Abbey Road’ The Beatles
‘The Band’ The Band
‘Everybody Knows This is Nowhere’ Neil Young
‘Let It Bleed’ The Rolling Stones
‘Nashville Skyline’ Bob Dylan

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