Country music star Johnny Cash spent years performing for prisoners all over America, including San Quentin, becoming a fervent and outspoken voice for prisoners’ rights.
Cash’s first prison concert was at the Huntsville State Prison in Texas in 1957. Cash’s most famous prison performances occurred in the 1960s when he recorded live albums at Folsom and San Quentin state prisons.
“The roots of Cash’s empathy lies as far back as 1953 as a 21-year-old radio operator in the U.S. Air Force,” said Danny Robins, reporter for BBC World Service. After watching the film, “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison,” Cash was inspired to write a song.
Other well-known performers such as Carlos Santana, B.B. King, Joan Baez, and Willie Nelson have campaigned for the benefit of imprisoned men and women across America. Celebrities were able to provide live entertainment to prisoners and voice their advocacy for prisoners’ rights. Bread & Roses and the William James Foundation were two such groups.
Many of these groups and performers offered their time and talents to bring entertainment to prisoners, and to shed light on prison conditions while publicizing the importance of prison arts programs. None have had the legendary staying power however as “The Man in Black,” a nickname given to Cash for his penchant to wear black clothing.
Cash was born in 1932 in Arkansas to a farming family, and labored at a car plant as a young man. He later served in the Air Force and as a sales representative before his music career began in the 1950s. Cash’s strong religious beliefs were probably a factor that compelled him to care about the rights of prisoners. He connected with the idea that a man could be redeemed and he sold over 50 million records. Both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have honored Cash.
Many people believed in the 1960s that prisons were ineffective regarding rehabilitation and felt they were breeding grounds for producing criminals. “Cash had always believed that prisoners as a whole were not the irretrievable miscreants portrayed in the media,” said Curly Ray Martin, a prisoner at San Quentin.
Cash’s prisoner advocacy was broad as he spoke about other unconstitutional issues and a succession of scandals that occurred during the ‘60s involving torture, horrid living conditions, sexual and physical abuse, and administrative failures.
“I think Cash had a feeling that somehow he could have been endowed with this fame in order to do something with it,” said Michael Streissguth, Cash’s biographer. “One of the ways he could do something with it was talking about prison reform.”
One form of torture that Cash abhorred was known as the “Tucker Telephone.” It was an old-style telephone hooked to a battery with clamps and cables that would be used to shock prisoners.
“One clip was attached to the toe, the other attached to his private parts,” said Joellen Maack, curator at Arkansas’s Old State Museum. “The warden would crank the phone and it would deliver an electrical charge.”
Cash recorded his famous “Folsom Prison Blues” song in 1968, during a time in his career when he was struggling with drug addiction. Cash’s outlaw image solidified after performing “Folsom Prison Blues” during his show Live at San Quentin. The show was a success, and eventually led to ABC commissioning the Johnny Cash Show, turning him into a TV star.
Cash continued his campaign on penal reform by speaking to U.S. senators in Washington, D.C. with his ideas and suggestions to correct some of the problems behind the prison walls. His proposals included the separation of first-timers and hardened criminals and the reclassification of offenses to keep minor offenders out of prison. Cash also wanted to focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and counseling to prepare convicts for the outside world and reduce the possibility of them reoffending.
Speaking at a U.S. Senate hearing, Cash once said, “People have got to care for prison reform to come about.” Cash had a special way to make people listen and his most powerful tool was his music that he shared with his passion to give a voice to the voiceless behind bars. Cash died in 2003 at the age of 71.
“He had a unique ability to get inside the heads of these forgotten and ignored men and understand the problems facing them,” said Danny Robins. “The roar from the inmate audience that’s heard on Live at San Quentin when Cash launches into the provocative angry track Folsom Prison Blues is testimony to this.”