As legend has it, while stationed in West Germany as he served in the United States Air Force, Johnny Cash saw the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison and was inspired to the write his classic 1955 hit “Folsom Prison Blues.” What’s not as well known about the story is that Cash liberally took from Gordon Jenkins’ “Crescent City Blues” and settled a lawsuit because of it. But that didn’t stop “Folsom Prison Blues” from becoming a quintessential Johnny Cash song due in part to its combination of a prisoner and a train, frequent themes throughout his work.
As he sang in “Man in Black,” Cash had empathy for all those in society “who are held back” and that included inmates, which is why he performed in jails and advocated prison reforms. The first time it was captured live for people outside the walls was 1968’s At Folsom Prison, a landmark album that helped revitalize Cash’s career, which had gone into a slump because of his drug addiction and shifting priorities at Columbia Records. In 1973, he told Rolling Stone, “that's where things really got started for me again.”
In 1999, At Folsom Prison was re-released with three extra tracks and once again in 2008 labeled a “Legacy Edition” with both shows recorded from that day, the 65-minute first show with seven previously unissued tracks and the 75-minute second show with 24 previously unissued tracks. The shows are also uncensored, so you hear Cash sing about how he “shot that bad bitch down” in “Cocaine Blues,” which gets raucous approval from the inmates, and during the second show at the beginning of “25 Minutes To Go” he playfully warns the audience, “don’t say ‘shit’ or anything like that out loud.” The “Legacy Edition” also includes a feature-length documentary that examines the album’s creation and its legacy. Cash can be heard in interviews throughout and many others including Cash’s bassist Marshall Grant, Marty Stuart, Merle Haggard, and former inmates reflect upon it.
The beginning of the disc one is new material as Los Angles radio DJ Hugh Cherry handles announcements. Then the supporting acts perform: Carl Perkins with his classic “Blue Suede Shoes” followed by The Statler Brothers “The Ole House.”
Backed by arguably the best backing trio ever in country music, the Tennessee Three, Cash opens, as the original album did, with “Folsom Prison Blues.” He then wisely chooses many other songs his audience will identify with from the two previously mentioned to “Joe Bean” who is going to be hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. Cash closes the set with Glen Sherley’s “Greystone Chapel.” Sherley was a Folsom inmate at the time and wrote about the prison’s church.
Yet, the set is not all prison songs. Although Merle Travis’ “Dark As A Dungeon” is about a coal mine, the audience can identify with the lyrics “Where danger is double and pleasures are few/ Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines.” Also, two funny love songs by Cowboy Jack Clement, “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog” and “Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart,” have a serious subtext about affairs of the heart.
About half the unissued material is Cash alone with his guitar singing somber songs. “The Long Black Veil” is what a man’s wife wears because he went to jail and was hung rather than give his alibi “I’d been in the arms/ of my best friend’s wife.” In “Send A Picture of Mother” a man requests upon his brother’s release not to mention that his escape attempt will forever keep him in jail. “The Wall” is about a man who commits suicide trying to escape jail. While there was no doubt many a tough and hardened man in the audience, it’s hard to believe all eyes were dry after these songs.
To the delight of the men, June Carter came out for their hit duet “Jackson” and the previously unreleased cover of Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman.” After the seven-minute “Legend of John Henry’s Hammer,” June offers a silly poem about a cow, which can be heard for the first time.
The second show started three hours after the first started and you can hear the difference. Cash and the Tennessee Three aren’t as energetic as the first show, and on “Orange Blossom Special” Cash messes up the lyrics and sounds out of breath. Still, any Johnny Cash concert is miles ahead of many other artists and the second show is well worth a listen. “Give My Love to Rose” and “I Got Stripes” are the only songs from the second show that made the original-album cut. The only other song not played earlier was “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man” which they really rock on, especially June’s raspy growl. It's amazing they never thought to release it until now.
Carl Perkins and The Statler Brothers played more songs than the previous show. The highlight is the Statlers’ “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too,” a very funny song with the narrator telling a friend he has to choose one woman, and it better not be the narrator’s.
At Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition improves on the original release, which is a hard feat to accomplish for an album of such historical significance. It is a must-have for any music fan that doesn’t own it, and a valuable upgrade if you do.