Written Draft of Script for ‘Perceived Space’

Perceived Space

  1. Perceived Space of Prison: sounding an image of the Folsom prison inmate + relating theory to album

The sounds of the prisoners in Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Album exhibit an underlying impression of nostalgic All-American criminality. In their homogeneity, the prisoners respond with buoyant laughter and applause to Cash’s characteristically ‘happy go lucky’ outlaw prompts. Unsurprisingly, they can be heard collectively cheering, whistling and exclaiming throughout the album, in the process voicing an idealised provincial impression of the American fugitive. Looking to Henri Lefebvre’s first dimension of the spatial triad, we contend that the listener of the album is sonically encouraged to perceive the space of the prison as the album initially proposes: cheerful and rustically rebellious. Lefebvre argues that ‘spatial practice (perceived space) is lived directly before it is conceptualised’. In this sense, it is the immediate accessibility of the sounds of the prisoners that enable an instantaneous perception of the prison’s spatial organisation. This sonic experience means that, in line with Lisa Schmidt’s reflections on sound, ‘We must not wonder […] if we really perceive a world. Rather, we must say that the world is that which we perceive’. In tracing the sounds of the prisoners we argue that Johnny Cash’s lyrics enact a sonic perception of the local yokel misfit, enabling the listener to perceive the prison in a similarly romanticised manner.

  1.     Applause of prisoners: the blues of the ‘happy go lucky inmate’
  • Folsom Prison Blues — sanitised image of the outlaw

This typified image of the American outlaw is specifically audible at the start of the album, as Cash belts his famous line ‘I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die’. (play sound, comment after) The prisoners wait for Cash to drop the visceral punch line ‘just to watch him die’ to then applaud vociferously. The voice of one prisoner sounds ‘woo!’ whereas the other individual claps fold into a mass of applause. ‘Far from Folsom Prison /That’s where I want to stay’ prompts the prisoners to react to another of many characteristic images of the outlaw being on the run. This pattern of applause in Folsom Prison Blues is reciprocated throughout the album, as the prisoners react at foreseeable instances of stereotypical criminality. In hearing the sounds of the prisoners as a mass of voices endorsing these moments of criminality, the listener is brought to perceive a near cinematic Western-style portrait of the Folsom Prison inmate. Indeed, the prisoners unified and compartmentalised segments of applause bring the listener to perceive a sanitised image of the outlaw.

  • Cocaine Blues — homogenous endorsement of the ‘happy go lucky’ outlaw and simplification of incarceration process

This standardisation of prisoner’s reactions invites the listener to perceive a harmonious image of the outlaw, their applauses sounding a homogenous typified impression of the Folsom inmate. This is heightened at 8:49 minutes into the album (play segment of Cocaine Blues). The lines ‘I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down’ and ‘I stuck that lovin 44 beneath my head’ prompt an emphatic applause from the prisoner audience. The listener is brought to foresee the mass of the prisoners yells  alongside the sounding of violent lyrics. In this regard, the prisoners are brought to sound an image of the outlaw as a characteristically on the run country man, in accordance to the narrative Cash lyrically promotes.

This image is heightened as Cash’s mention of places such as ‘Juarez, Mexico’ ‘county jail’ ‘district court’ and ultimately ‘Folsom Pen’ map the process of incarceration alongside an unfeeling narrative of the outlaw on the run. The prisoners’ strident shouts at the mention of each of these places concretsies, legitimises and simplifies the process from criminality to incarceration. Again, the listener is supposedly being granted the transparent narrative of the prisoners’ applauding endorsement of this ‘outlaw’ identity. The inability to decipher individuality in this mass of anticipated acclaim means that the prisoners are typified alongside the protagonist of Cash’s lyrical narrative. In so doing, the listener assimilates the yells of the audience to the narrative of the lyrics, leading the album listener to perceive the prisoners as conforming to a romanticised image of the outlaw redneck.  

III. Ballad banter: nostalgia of the pastoral misfit

  • Long Black Veil  and John Henry ideal ‘working country man’

Johnny Cash’s Long Black Veil offers a less rowdy, more ballad-like musical measure, yet it continues to promote a perception of the prisoner as a ‘happy go lucky’ misfit. This is particularly audible when hearing the reactions to the line ‘I spoke not a word, though it meant my life/For I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife’. (listen to this segment) The spoken interruption from Cash (hear it) in reaction to the laughter of the prisoners (hear it) illustrates a camaraderie in this hypothetical scenario. The prisoners unanimous laughter highlights the carefree perception the listener constructs of the Folsom Prison inmate. This is similarly the case in the John Henry ballad and the prisoner’s reaction to the line ‘You know I believe this is the first there ever was the sun come/And I couldn’t come up with it’ (listen to the reaction). As Cash interrupts the song to join into the prisoner’s laughter, stating ‘dirty mind’ the listener is once again provided a wholesome and normalised perception of the inmate as a local yokel outlaw. Both these instances of bonding over moments of potentially stereotypical masculine moments invites the listener to perceive the prisoner as a wholesome misfit. Cash’s storytelling ballads enable the listener to concretise their perception of the outlaw as a homogenised misfit, both as a criminal and a countryman. These instances heighten the nostalgic perceived image of the pastoral outlaw.

This turn to perceiving the outlaw as a pastoral hillbilly, in addition to a more visceral criminal, is heightened as Cash states (listen) ‘you know JOhn Henry was a real man he worked on a tunnel up in West Virginia building a tunnel for the sanjo railroad and the was a night big man they say that from his heel all the way to the ground he had a stroke of 19 feet (boy that’s a  long stroke woo ! That’s a long stroke!’ As he gets the prisoners to join in with laughter to this reference to the hard working real country man, the listener is again provided a stereotypical perception of the outlaw misfit, an American identity etc.. Homogeneous image via collective laughter


To do:

write conceived space script

create interactive chronology of album tracking moments of perceived and conceive sonic spatial creations we will refer to in powerpoint, figuring out how to integrate into powerpoint

create powerpoint

run through presentation