This week please read chapter 3 (The Man in Black) and chapter 4 (Folsom Prison Blues) of Richard Beck’s book Trains, Jesus, and Murder – The Gospel According to Johnny Cash.
FOLSOM PRISON BLUES
The second song this week we will be looking at is “Folsom Prison Blues.” When you have the opportunity, please listen to the entire album – Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison. “Folsom Prison Blues” is the first song on the album. For me, the live version of this song is the quintessential Johnny Cash song dealing with sin, punishment, and regret. Over the years, Cash recorded several songs about murder from the perpetrator’s point of view – “Folsom Prison Blues,” Cocaine Blues, and Delia’s Gone, among others. Unlike many modern songs celebrating violence, Cash’s murder songs show the consequences of the sin and the resulting remorse and shame.
Cash wrote the song while still in the Air Force after watching a documentary on the deplorable conditions at Folsom State Prison in California. Cash first recorded the song in 1955, and it became his second hit song. The song is about a murderer feeling the regret of being locked away for life in Folsom Prison and being envious of those outside of the prison going merrily along their way. Few if any of us, have ever been locked away in a physical prison of bars and razor wire. For most of us, our prisons are different. These prisons can be emotional or spiritual where we are locked in by shame and regret. And, like Cash’s song, we see others (particularly in this age of social media) seemingly going about their lives with a happiness and fulfillment that cannot be found by the imprisoned. The song itself does not offer us a solution, but it does offer us solidarity. As you listen to the original recording, think about and recognize the prisons you find yourself in.
LIVE @ FOLSOM PRISON
The song, however, has a larger lesson and deeper meaning than found simply in the lyrics. In 1968, Johnny Cash was becoming a has-been. Fresher groups like the Beatles and the Beach Boys dominated pop music, and country music wasn’t cool. Cash had also just started recovering from alcohol and drug abuse which had caused him to miss concerts and otherwise damaged his reputation. His wife had left him, and he was looking to start over.
Johnny Cash’s rebirth begins at Folsom Prison. In 1968, he recorded a live album at the prison beginning with the eponymous song. Listen to the 1968 live recording and compare it to the 1955 studio recording. Having the prisoners in the room with him gives the song a different energy and substance. In 1968, Cash not only sings about the forgotten prisoner but brings them into our speakers and living rooms. It becomes personal. (If you want to read more about the significance of the recording, here are some recent articles from Rolling Stone, NPR, and USA Today.) This recording put Johnny Cash back. It gave Cash his first Grammy and lead to the creation of the Johnny Cash Show on ABC. Johnny Cash found his redemption in prison with the forgotten and discarded men imprisoned there.
As Christians, we should not be surprised that redemption can be found in prison. In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31-46), Jesus says that “I (Jesus) was in prison and you visited me” and the sheep asked “When did we see you in prison” and Jesus answers “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” In the parable, Jesus is not the do-gooding sheep who goes out to the disenfranchised, rather Jesus IS the disenfranchised. In the live version of the song, Cash introduces us to Jesus in the voices of the prisoners that we hear. Listen to the live recording, and see if you can hear Jesus in the shouts of the men to whom he is singing.
In the 1960’s (as today), as Beck points out, socially enlightened bands recorded songs about love and justice and would give voice to the peace movement. However, it was Johnny Cash who physically went into the prisons and meet with and entertained the marginalized. As Beck writes “Words are nice, and so are songs, but when it comes to justice and love, its where you put your ass that ultimately matters.” (p.44). The Sheep are not the ones who say the rights words or espouse the right political causes, but the ones who do the work. As James writes: “If a person is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, to what does it profit?” (James 2:14-16) Our calling is to the work and to go and meet Jesus where he tells us we will find him.
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone
When I was just a baby, my mama told me
“Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns”
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry
I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep on movin’
And that’s what tortures me
Well if they freed me from this prison
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Matt. 25:37-40