“I’m stuck in Folsom Prison and time keeps draggin’ on…”
Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
The rolling country hills are strewn with barbed wire fencing and are punctuated by guard towers. At the “STOP” sign by the jail perimeter, a line of wild turkeys struts past, heading in the direction of the visitors’ processing office.
Welcome to Folsom State Prison, California, the backdrop for one of popular music’s most remarkable recordings 50 years ago.
Hewn from unforgiving grey granite, Folsom opened in 1880 as one as one of the United States’ first maximum-security prisons. Today, it houses 2,500 inmates and produces all of the state’s licence plates, about 50,000 per day, from its dedicated factory.
Folsom has been home to a celebrity A-list of inmates including 60s cult leader Charles Manson, “Super Freak” singer Rick James, and Erik Menendez, who with his brother Lyle slaughtered their wealthy parents. LSD advocate Timothy Leary, dubbed “the most dangerous man in America” by Richard Nixon, did a stretch.
But this is not why thousands of people visit the jail from all over the world. They come here to pay homage to a man in black who did not spend a single night behind bars.
A mock-prison photograph of a bandaged Johnny Cash, taken at Folsom during a concert in 1966, sparked the myth that the singer did time here.
The legend was fuelled by performances Cash made at other US jails, including San Quentin, as well as his well-documented struggle with drug addiction.
Cash had an affinity with men from the wrong side of the tracks and it was two concerts he staged for Folsom inmates on January 13, 1968 that secured his place in the popular music pantheon. The raw, explosive performances recorded in Dining Room 2 were released in May 1968 as the live album “At Folsom Prison,” regarded as one of the greatest ever.
The star simply introduces himself with the words, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” before ripping into the metronomic “Folsom Prison Blues.” The song features the classic line: “… I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” the wild whoop of a prisoner echoing around the hall.
Fast-forward 50 years and the topic of a gun murder has proved too delicate for Californian sensibilities, at least in the jail’s museum and gift shop. Located past the gate-house, set back on the right, the museum – entry is two dollars – is dedicated to the story of the jail, built for felons involved in the Gold Rush crimewave.
Behind the ticket desk, an array of T-shirts is dedicated to Folsom’s most famous adopted son. You can buy a Folsom Prison baby onesie for $24. The so-called The Big House Prison Museum is run by volunteers, so yes, it does need “cash.”
However, a shirt celebrating the landmark 1968 concerts has fallen victim to some politically-correct airbrushing.
The original T-shirt, now discontinued, features the lyric “I shot a man in Reno…” in blood-red, block capitals.
A newly-printed version of the shirt is identical with the exception of the words, now expunged.
The museum and gift shop, operated as a non-profit charity by the Retired Correctional Peace Officers Association, faced complaints that the T-shirt was in poor taste, and one of country music’s greatest lines was deleted.
Elaine Silverberg, 66, visiting from New Jersey, is not impressed. “You cannot whitewash everything. That line is so important for the song,” says Silverberg, who is accompanied by husband and fellow Cash fan David Haldorsen, 78.
Elsewhere on the album, Cash, who died in 2003, sings about taking a “shot of cocaine” and counts down to a hanging in “25 Minutes To Go.” The album “At Folsom Prison” is visceral country blues; it is not easy listening.
The couple’s vacation is taking in Nevada, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. “We started our tour in Reno. We didn’t shoot anybody,” says Silverberg, smiling. She and her husband fell in love with Cash’s back catalogue after watching the 2005 biopic “Walk The Line” starring Joaquin Phoenix.
They stopped at Folsom on their way to Sacramento, the state capital, and discovered the prison was nearby. Silverberg adds: “When we realised, we had to come and get a picture in front of the museum.”
Fellow visitor Alex Walters, 44, a commercial director fromduring a break between business meetings in the local area. “It felt rude not visit,” says Walters. In the background, a recording to Cash singing “The Green, Green Grass of Home” is playing on a loop.
Walters adds: “Folsom is so famous. I got into Johnny Cash later on, with the Rick Rubin produced albums. My gran always had Johnny Cash albums when she was young. She had a crush on him.”
To view the Cash exhibits, gathered in a small, starkly-lit room at the back of the museum, visitors pass display cabinets with a prison hangman’s hemp noose, used for Folsom executions, a hand-cranked Gatling gun and a wall covered in shanks, grisly improvised bladed weapons made by prisoners.
A less brutal side of inmate ingenuity is captured in a display of prison folk art: there is a shiny women’s purse made from potato chip wrappers, and a funeral horse carved from soap.
Under a banner declaring “Hello… I’m Johnny Cash” there are framed photographs, newspaper cuttings and posters recalling the country star’s Folsom concerts. It is a homespun affair.
Flyers went around the jail in December 1967 announcing the January 13 concerts for inmates of “good standing,” concluding that there would be “increased security.” Cash and his wife June Carter Cash entered the jail through one of the imposing gates. The receiving and release building doubled as their dressing room and a stage was erected in the dining room, in front of the scullery.
A thousand prisoners attended each of the two shows, which started at 9.40am and 12.40pm. The running list included “Greystone Chapel,” written by prisoner Glen Sherley about Folsom’s “house of worship inside this den of sin.” Cash only learned the number the day before the shows. He reputedly paid the robber, who attended the concert, $50 for the song.
Folsom is braced for an influx of visitors to mark the golden anniversary of “At Folsom Prison.” The second leg of the 2.5 mile Johnny Cash Trail, a bike path that will be lined with public art honouring the star, opened last October.
Inside the museum, which opened in 1975, volunteer Julie Michaelis, a former US Department of Agriculture investigator, says: “You get more people from outside the country visiting than from the US. They come from Spain, Ireland, England, you name it. New Zealand. Greece. People from all over. A lot of it is due to the draw of Johnny Cash.”
Joe Cocke, who was a lieutenant at the prison, is visiting with a friend. He says the Cash legacy means little to most guards: “To people who work here, Johnny Cash is a novelty, but to the City of Folsom it is a big deal because it draws people to come here and spend money.”
After purchasing a Johnny Cash T-shirt, a retro 60s’ fridge magnet of the “Cash prison gate” and a Folsom baseball cap, there is one thing to do before leaving – snap a picture by the indomitable entrance where the star posed for photographs, resplendent in a black suit and pomaded hair.
The closest fans can get to the hallowed gate is 100 yards back at a “picture spot” marked by a concrete post and a sign that declares: “Stop. No visitors beyond this point!”