James Joyce once wrote, “In the particular is contained the universal.” That is what happened to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. He gave a performance on a single day at Folsom and from that particular memory became a universal one.
Cash has performed in prisons before but in 1968 his performance at the Folsom State Prison in California “marked a renaissance in Cash’s life and career” according to Rolling Stones.  He performed two shows there and the concert has been recorded live to his successful album called “At Folsom Prison”.
Johnny Cash’s Prison Performances: the Man in Black playing for the men in blue
His Folsom Prison performance may be the most famous one, but Cash performed in prisons before. “One thing he liked about playing prisons: If he did something the audience didn’t like, they couldn’t leave,” W.S. “Fluke” Holland, Cash’s drummer at the time says, reported by the NPR. With his image as a “Man in Black,” he played for the prisoners in blue prison suits. 
It is important to note here that the prison demographics back then was much different than today. Today the inmates are dominantly black people, whereas in the 1960s there were mostly white people. So Johnny Cash, as a white Southern country singer, was loved by the prisoner population. Haggard is quoted in the New York Daily News article that, “He had the right attitude. He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards-he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us” As one can understand by this quote, Cash had a connection with the prisoners in terms of being a white man.
According to his daughter, Cash’s interest in prisons goes back to his days serving in the U.S, Air Force in the early 1950s. He also saw a noir crime drama called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison that inspired him to take action. So he started advocating for prisoners’ rights at the prisoners, therefore he wrote songs about them and performed in prisons.
Album: At Folsom Prison
The album was recorded live during the performance and released months after. There was in total seventeen songs on the album, fifteen from the first performance and two from the second on the same day. The album includes his famous song “Folsom Prison Blues” with his introduction sentence “Hello, I’m johnny Cash” and “Cocaine Blues”. The album was a quick success and topped the Billboard country charts immediately. From that point, his career took off. NPR writes: “Cash wrote the song “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955; it was his first big hit. But by 1968, he hadn’t had a hit in several years. He’d become notorious for missing concert dates, and because of an addiction to prescription pills, he was usually out of it when he did show up.” With his success in his 1968 performance and his upcoming album “At Folsom Prison”, he straightened up his life as well. 
Folsom Prison Blues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDktBZzQIiU 
Cocaine Blues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aq344ks1ieg 
Listen to the full album here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpZ-2HDJzFw&t=592s 
Johnny Cash’s daughter is interviewed on Folsom
Rolling Stones published an interview with Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne Cash for the 50th anniversary of his famous performance. Rosanne, who is a singer today, was only 12-years-old at the time of Cash’s performance. However, she explains that she was around his dad a lot and is asked to think about the memory of his music.
She says when asked about what Folsom meant for the memory of Cash in the sixties she says, “Folsom tapped into the pure rebellion of the times and just that impulse to overthrow, to change things, to bump up against authority in all of its guises. That’s what the Sixties felt like to me. There was a revolution going on, and Folsom was part of the revolution.” It is interesting to see how a family member and a kid at that time interprets Johnny Cash’s lifestyle and views as well as the turning point of his career at Folsom. Rosanne offers a unique insight of the sixties and how the Folsom performance defined his dad’s career. To read more from the interview, please see the article by Rolling Stones. 
Overall, the 1968 performance at the Folsom Prison in California was a defining moment for Johnny Cash’s career. It allowed his career to grow with his new live album “At Folsom Prison” which according to New York Daily News, “is still mentioned as one of the greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone and it cemented Cash’s legacy as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.” Johnny Cash was an advocate for prisoner rights as well which is why he performed in prisons a lot and tried to improve the prison laws and conditions. Looking back 50 years, he has certainly inspired many people and impacted the country music history immensely all thanks to the particular memory at the Folsom Prison in 1968. As a last note, Johnny Cash’s impact in 1968 is similar to the general atmosphere of the year as it entails a struggle for prisoners rights and today he is both remembered for his activism and his music, the music side a little more than the other.
 “At Folsom Prison.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Apr. 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/At_Folsom_Prison.
 Bitette, Nicole. “Johnny Cash’s Famous Folsom Prison Performance of 1968.” NY Daily News, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, 13 Jan. 2016, http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music/johnny-cash-famous-folsom-prison-performance-1968-article-1.2495863.
 costra88. “Johnny Cash – Cocaine Blues.” YouTube, YouTube, 9 June 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aq344ks1ieg.
 flipperdolfin. “Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues (Live).” YouTube, YouTube, 6 Mar. 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDktBZzQIiU.
 “Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison (1968) (Full Album).” YouTube, YouTube, 27 July 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpZ-2HDJzFw&t=592s.
 Streissguth, Michael. “Johnny Cash’s ‘At Folsom Prison’: Rosanne Cash Recalls Iconic Live Album” 2018. https://www.rollingstone.com/country/features/johnny-cashs-at-folsom-prison-rosanne-cash-on-dads-album-w515393.
 Veltman, Chloe. “Johnny Cash Takes A Stand: Looking Back On His Folsom Prison Performance.” NPR, NPR, 12 Jan. 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/01/12/576763031/johnny-cash-at-folsom-prison-50-years-later.
By Turkan Banu Karatas
April 20, 2018