50 years after Johnny Cash made history at Folsom Prison, the music lives on
January 18 will mark the 50th anniversary of Johnny Cash's famous performance at Folsom State Prison. Meanwhile, many of the inmates at Folsom are receiving training in music theory as part of one of several rehabilitation programs, while the State of California has carved out a budget of $8 million to develop the Johnny Cash Prison Art Trail
Roy McNeese Jr, aged 55, is in inmate at Folsom State Prison, California. Since 1997, he has been serving a sentence of 33 years of life with possibility of parole for one count of second-degree murder and one count of attempted second-degree murder. Every Tuesday, Roy does something special — he teaches music theory for fellow inmates at Folsom looking to turn their lives around.
Prisoners who wish to hone their instrumental skills or learn to master their voice while serving time have a chance to learn how to write music and understand songwriting better during these classes that McNeese conducts, reports the Los Angeles Times.
The classroom is a compact space adjacent to Folsom’s expansive dining hall. As the prisoners walk through the heavily fortified metal door to their makeshift classroom, they can see two words across the door — Condemned Row. But nowadays, the block that once held Death Row inmates is filled with electronic keyboards, drum kits, guitar amplifiers and other gear for the prison’s music program, one of several rehabilitation programs that Folsom Prison offers to its inmates.
The equipment is used by about 40 inmates who play in one or more bands at Folsom. The prison attained worldwide fame thanks to legendary country singer Johnny Cash’s career-defining 1956 hit Folsom Prison Blues. What’s more — the dining hall where the images rehearse is the very same one where Cash, along with his wife and singer June Carter Cash, and their musical entourage performed on January 13, 1968, a session recorded and subsequently released as “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.”
The album shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Country charts, spinning Cash’s career around at a time when it was at an all-time low because of his sustained drug abuse. It even won Cash the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, the first of four he won in his career, at the 1969 Grammy Awards.
“When we’re playing, and everybody locks in together, I’m not in prison anymore,” said McNeese, in conversation with the LA Times. Cash, who famously wore an all-black outfit as a homage to underdogs in all walks of life, would indeed be please by the transformation of Folsom’s ‘Condemned Row’ into a place to teach and learn music. In an interview with the Folsom Observer in 1967, Cash said, “I would rather play Folsom for free than most any other place I know of.”
Cash used to open most of his concerts with Folsom Prison Blues, after greeting the audience with his trademark introduction, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," for decades. The story goes that Cash was inspired to write this song after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951) while serving in West Germany in the United States Air Force at Landsberg, Bavaria (itself the location of a famous prison).
Johnny Cash, who is today seen as the champion of the downtrodden, played his first performance for incarcerated men in 1957 at Huntsville State Prison in Texas, 11 years before the Folsom gig. He then performed another at California’s San Quentin State Prison in 1958.
Interestingly, one of the inmates present for Cash’s show that day, who often credited Cash’s performance for turning his life around, was a young Merle Haggard. Haggard was serving time for burglary at the prison when Cash visited. Cash had such a profound influence on Haggard that upon release he set out on forging a career as a singer-songwriter. He went on to become a country groundbreaker.
Cash’s fascination with the incarcerated and the downtrodden can be picked up in many of his songs, but most significantly in ‘The Man in Black’, whose lyrics go:
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Livin’ in the hopeless hungry side of town
I wear the black for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he’s a victim of the times
Yet Folsom Prison staff members express mixed feelings about the Cash connection. “Did Johnny Cash make Folsom Prison?” asks Jim Brown, who has worked at Folsom for 47 years as a guard and a volunteer. “The staff here makes Folsom,” said Brown.
Photos from 1968 show a prison population that was largely Anglo, with a few Latinos among them. Today the inmates, who number about 2,500, are predominantly Black, Latino and Asian — not really an ideal target demographic for vintage country music.
Consequently, the musicians at Folsom have formed hip-hop, hard rock/heavy metal, Latin rock, alt-rock, smooth jazz and progressive rock ensembles within Folsom’s walls. But ironically, not a single one is a country band.
But McNeese in his music classes hopes that music will bind the inmates together and help them step above petty issues of color and genrefication. One thing that McNeese enforces on those in the music program is that “there are no cliques — no separation among groups, no racial barriers.”
According to the LA Times report, music programs such as the one McNeese and a few dozen others now take part in were quite active throughout the 70s and 80s but withered in the early 2000s because of budget cuts and prison overcrowding. A revival began in 2013, and in 2017 rehabilitative programs have returned to all 35 state prisons in California.
January 18 next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Cash’s Folsom performance. But Folsom officials want to highlight rehabilitation rather than the anniversary of Cash’s celebrated concert. Meanwhile, in the town of Folsom, the visitors bureau is working full force ahead to develop the Johnny Cash Prison Art Trail into a significant tourist attraction. So far, the first phase of the projected $8 million endeavor has carved out a 1.4-mile bike trail that emphasizes Cash’s musical legacy in the region. That includes a giant sculpture shaped like a guitar pick and a bridge echoing the design of the guard towers at the nearby prison.
The value of such programs was studied by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, the LA Times reports. In a 2013 report, Rand researchers concluded that “a $1 investment in prison education [reduces] incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years post-release.”
The incentive, the report said, is that “Prison inmates who receive general education and vocational training are significantly less likely to return to prison after release and are more likely to find employment than peers who do not receive such opportunities.”
“I’d like to be someone who is able to make a positive difference,” said Gary Calvin, while speaking to the LA Times. “You take a wrong turn here, a wrong turn there — it happens. But it’s not over. Things can change.” Here’s looking at you Johnny! If he knew what the inmates at Folsom were up to today, he’d surely smile!
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