To fully understand the cultural and socio-political significance of Johnny Cash’s first prison album, At Folsom Prison, for the artist himself, but (and more importantly for our present purposes) for the audience of those live-recorded concerts, the prisoners themselves, it would be necessary to consider the cultural and political backdrop that made the recording and public release of such a concert possible. The context of the album, released by Columbia Records in May of 1968, is comprised of two converging perspectives. On the one hand, we have the general, widespread feeling of civil (or, often, not-so-civil) disobedience brought about by protest against the Vietnam War and by the civil rights movement. With reference to seminal American free-thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau – especially the latter’s on “On Civil Disobedience” – the leaders of the movement tried to forge a path to freedom for the country’s enslaved. Martin Luther King – murdered just once month before the official release of Live at Folsom Prison –, for example, or Malcolm X – who had himself spent a significant number of years in prison – both played a part in forming this anti-slavery narrative of civil disobedience within the 1960s political sphere. On the other hand, this feeling of unrest simultaneously dominated the folk-song and blues tradition. The idea of confinement, of incarceration, is deeply imbedded in the folk-country songs of Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and is evidently prevalent in Leadbelly’s prison songs. Most of these blues singers, like Leadbelly, had actually served time. This is the tradition Johnny Cash emerged out of both as a performer and songwriter. And many of the songs Cash came to sing or be inspired by only become accessible in the first place when ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax began touring the south in the 1930s, visiting prisons and farmlands, and recording the songs he’d hear sung. Some of the performers Lomax discovered would later join the rooster of Columbia Records. Later the 1960s vocalised the protest to all sorts of confinements and gave this feeling of unrest at the heart of these songs much stronger political overtones – or at least, in facilitating the politicisation of all aspects of public and private life, allowed for politicised song to find a much wider audience. Thus, within the same context, Bob Dylan penned “I Shall Be Released”, one of the era’s defining prison songs. Under these conditions it would definitely make sense of a recording company like Columbia to cash in on this generalised sentiment and have an artist like Johnny Cash record a live concert in Folsom Prison.
However, none of this is done unambiguously. Within the civil rights movement, we find figures like Eldridge Cleaver, a polemic writer who later had a change of heart and become a Christian Republican. In January of 1968, when the album is recorded, we are just one year sigh of Nixon’s presidential inauguration. Mixed-race prisons, as Folsom is, have only just been introduced into an extremely problematic penal system. It is this problematic side we are interested in examining here. While all this is happening in the United States, across the Atlantic Michel Foucault is already developing his theories and critiques of penal systems for his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish.
The art of punishing […] brings five quite distinct operations into play: it refers individual actions to a whole that is at once a field of comparison, a space of differentiation and the principle of a rule to be followed. It differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimum threshold, as an average to be respected or as an optimum towards which one must move. It measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the “nature” of individuals. It introduces, through this “value-giving” measure, the constraint of a conformity that must be achieved. Lastly, it traces the limit that will define difference in relation to all other differences, the external frontier of the abnormal. (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish)
Here Foucault helps understand the purpose prison concerts could serve in reference to the constant imperative to reform the American penal system. We can image how the album could, at least to a certain extent, intend to alter the public perception of imprisoned: at the end of the album Johnny Cash sings “Greystone Chapel”, a song actually written by one of the prisoners at Folsom Prison, Glen Sherley.
One fact is characteristic: when it is a question of altering the system of imprisonment, opposition does not come from the judicial institutions alone; resistance is to be found not in the prison as penal sanction, but in the prison with all determinations, links and extra-judicial results; in the prison as the relay in the general network of disciplines and surveillances; in the prison as it functions in a panoptic regime. This does not mean that it cannot be altered, nor that it is once and for all indispensable to our kind of society. (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish)
Under this light, one finds special interest in looking at how the voice of the prison itself sips into Johnny Cash’s recording. The post-production sound-editing efforts aimed to partially muffle both the prisoners themselves and all-manner of prison sounds inadvertently heard on the record and to reinforce Johnny Cash’s outlaw image for obvious commercial reasons. In other words, Columbia Records finds ground within the afore-mentioned cultural and political context to cash in on the Cash’s public image as a kind of outlaw singer, emerging out of the deep roots of the folk tradition, who gives a liberating voice to the down-trodden, the imprisoned, the outlaws. The emphasis is put on how Cash can give a voice to them by an effort to eliminate their own voice, still so obviously present in the record, while creating a distorted quasi-nostalgic image of Ol’-America criminality.