By Mollie Campbell
Whilst the back-catalogue of Johnny Cash is full of endless iconic songs and albums, the first thing that comes to my mind when thinking of the Man in Black is the album ‘At Folsom Prison’. Its zestful energy, the courage behind the creation, its indescribable infectious spirit…all results in a 45 minute recording that the musical world will surely never be able to shed. The rambunctious essence of this album will forever live in the minds of people whose worlds were changing, recorded near the end of a revolutionary decade, ‘At Folsom Prison’ was never going to be forgotten.
From the moment you hear that famous deep twang of an introduction ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’ followed by thunderous cheers and an old-school riff, you know you are going to be in good hands for the remainder of the record. He begins with ‘Folsom Prison blues’, a timeless example of his growing outlaw image, set in stone with this album. The ease at which Cash writes his introductory song, with such simple yet gritty perspective is just one of the many reasons why he is spoken of with such high praise. What fellow young listeners have to remember is that this song and album was released in a time in which this classic country/outlaw/blues style of song-writing was being disregarded, instead listeners were making room for more extended songs and sounds, The Beatles Sgt Pepper had just been released the year before, the experimental sounds of Pink Floyd were starting to makes waves, and The Jimi Hendrix experience was injecting some energy into a genre that was perceived as old news, having a huge impact on the way musicians wrote their songs. This old-school rock ability style was going out of fashion, yet Cash kept it alive with this very album. Retaining the good old fashioned spirit of what rock, country and the blues were based on… the sheer spirit of humanity and what binds us together as inhabitants on this earth.
The haunting conviction of his voice never falters in terms of energy, despite singing the whole album live, giving us an idea as to why Johnny Cash’s legacy will always be set in that same stone of excellence it has since he burst onto the scene in the 50’s. But what makes it so special to me is the fact that it isn’t flawless…something that is expected too often in the modern music world. Not everything needs to be flawless, it is music…it is raw, unpredictable, human and even if the notes aren’t perfect at all times, the essence of the music is there, the soul and the meaning, something that seems to be lost in the modern mainstream music industry. The sheer audacity of this album, the courage, the unapologetic defiance of fulfilling his creative vision is what makes it stand out. The mix of covers and his own raw, emotional song-writing made it timeless from the moment of its release. He manages to be political without necessarily intending to be, he shines a spotlight on history, lighting it up for the younger generation to see, he revitalises mythical tales and characters, bringing them back to life, ironically singing of their lives to the very people who have lived through them, the prisoners in front of him. He effortlessly pens a love letter to the blues/country and western genre, shooting blood back into its marble veins, reminding everyone of where this type of music came from, and the honesty of the song-writing that came with it.
Cash made no attempt to soften the blow of the themes he was singing about. He was singing these tales to men who were living through it… he knew that if he tried to diminish anything or cheat them of the truth that they were all painfully aware of, it would be seen as a hoax or a sham. The honesty from cash is clearly greatly appreciated as we hear endless chants from the invigorated prisoners. By singing their truth, while in no means justifying their actions, it connects him with his audience on a spiritual level, they are all being taken away on the same level of energy. This is the special connection that makes the album one-of-a-kind, and despite the listeners not being able to necessarily relate to the lives of the prisoners, we can all relate to the natural sense of human loneliness within the songs, and cash is filling that void, even if just for 45 minutes of our lives.
Overall, this is arguably one of the most famous albums in history; he ended the decade as it began but with a newfound grit. It is relatable for any generation, Cash reminds us of our human connections, the deep emotions within…our bodies may be fragile but our minds are full of strength. And in reminding us of these qualities that we all share, he helps us escape our own Folsom Prison, one song at a time.