More of Country Legend Johnny Cash.
Folsom Prison Blues
Cash felt great compassion for prisoners. He began performing concerts at various prisons starting in the late 1950s. His first prison concert was held on January 1, 1958 at San Quentin State Prison. These performances led to a pair of highly successful live albums, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969).
The Folsom Prison record was introduced by a rendition of his classic “Folsom Prison Blues”, while the San Quentin record included the crossover hit single “A Boy Named Sue”, a Shel Silverstein-penned novelty song that reached No. 1 on the country charts and No. 2 on the U.S. Top Ten pop charts. The AM versions of the latter contained a couple of profanities which were edited out. The modern CD versions are unedited and uncensored and thus also longer than the original vinyl albums, though they still retain the audience reaction overdubs of the originals.
In addition to his performances at U.S. prisons, Cash also performed at the Österåker Prison in Sweden in 1972. The live album På Österåker (“At Österåker”) was released in 1973. Between the songs, Cash can be heard speaking Swedish, which was greatly appreciated by the inmates.
The Man in Black”
Cash advocated prison reform at his July 1972 meeting with United States President Richard Nixon.
From 1969 to 1971, Cash starred in his own television show, The Johnny Cash Show, on the ABC network. The Statler Brothers opened up for him in every episode; the Carter Family and rockabilly legend Carl Perkins were also part of the regular show entourage. However, Cash also enjoyed booking more mainstream performers as guests; such notables included Neil Young, Louis Armstrong, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition (who appeared a record four times), James Taylor, Ray Charles, Derek and the Dominos, and Bob Dylan. During the same period, he contributed the title song and other songs to the film Little Fauss and Big Halsey, which starred Robert Redford, Michael J. Pollard, and Lauren Hutton. The title song, The Ballad of Little Fauss and Big Halsey, written by Carl Perkins, was nominated for a Golden Globe award.
Cash had met with Dylan in the mid 1960s and became closer friends when they were neighbors in the late 1960s in Woodstock, New York. Cash was enthusiastic about reintroducing the reclusive Dylan to his audience. Cash sang a duet with Dylan on Dylan’s country album Nashville Skyline and also wrote the album’s Grammy-winning liner notes.
Another artist who received a major career boost from The Johnny Cash Show was Kris Kristofferson, who was beginning to make a name for himself as a singer/songwriter. During a live performance of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, Cash refused to change the lyrics to suit network executives, singing the song with its references to marijuana intact:
On a Sunday morning sidewalk
I’m wishin’, Lord, that I was stoned.
By the early 1970s, he had crystallized his public image as “The Man in Black”. He regularly performed dressed all in black, wearing a long black knee-length coat. This outfit stood in contrast to the costumes worn by most of the major country acts in his day: rhinestone suit and cowboy boots. In 1971, Cash wrote the song “Man in Black”, to help explain his dress code:
We’re doing mighty fine I do suppose
In our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back
Up front there ought to be a man in black.
Cash attired in black performing in Bremen, Northern Germany, in September 1972
He wore black on behalf of the poor and hungry, on behalf of “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime”, and on behalf of those who have been betrayed by age or drugs. “And,” Cash added, “with the Vietnam War as painful in my mind as it was in most other Americans’, I wore it ‘in mournin’ for the lives that could have been.’… Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don’t see much reason to change my position… The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making many moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
He and his band had initially worn black shirts because that was the only matching color they had among their various outfits.[page needed] He wore other colors on stage early in his career, but he claimed to like wearing black both on and off stage. He stated that, political reasons aside, he simply liked black as his on-stage color.[page needed] To this day, the US Navy’s winter blue uniform is referred to by sailors as “Johnny Cashes”, as the uniform’s shirt, tie, and trousers are solid black.
In the mid 1970s, Cash’s popularity and number of hit songs began to decline. He made commercials for Amoco, an unpopular enterprise in an era in which oil companies made high profits while consumers suffered through high gasoline prices and shortages. However, his autobiography (the first of two), titled Man in Black, was published in 1975 and sold 1.3 million copies. A second, Cash: The Autobiography, appeared in 1997. His friendship with Billy Graham led to the production of a film about the life of Jesus, The Gospel Road, which Cash co-wrote and narrated.
He also continued to appear on television, hosting an annual Christmas special on CBS throughout the 1970s. Later television appearances included a role in an episode of Columbo (Swan Song). He also appeared with his wife on an episode of Little House on the Prairie entitled “The Collection” and gave a performance as John Brown in the 1985 American Civil War television mini-series North and South. Johnny and June also appeared in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman as a recurring couple.
He was friendly with every US President starting with Richard Nixon. He was closest to Jimmy Carter, with whom he became close friends.[page needed] He stated that he found all of them personally charming, noting that this was probably essential to getting oneself elected.[page needed]
When invited to perform at the White House for the first time in 1970, Richard Nixon’s office requested that he play “Okie from Muskogee” (a satirical Merle Haggard song about people who despised youthful drug users and war protesters) and “Welfare Cadillac” (a Guy Drake song which denies the integrity of welfare recipients). Cash declined to play either and instead selected other songs, including “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” (about a brave Native American World War II veteran who was mistreated upon his return to Arizona), and his own compositions, “What Is Truth” and “Man in Black”. Cash wrote that the reasons for denying Nixon’s song choices were not knowing them and having fairly short notice to rehearse them, rather than any political reason.[page needed] However, Cash added, even if Nixon’s office had given Cash enough time to learn and rehearse the songs, their choice of pieces that conveyed “antihippie and antiblack” sentiments might have backfired.