On January 1 in 1958, Johnny Cash gave his first performance at San Quentin Prison. It would not be his only prison concert, as prisoners often wrote the singer following the 1955 release of his hit song “Folson Prison Blues.” At the time of his first San Quentin appearance, Cash had already played at Huntsville State Prison in 1957.
A little over a decade later, with his career not doing well, Cash went to Folsom Prison for a concert to be recorded for an album. He also then returned to San Quentin on February 24, 1969 to record another live album At San Quentin. That album and At Folsom Prison became two of the best-selling live albums of all time.
The 1969 San Quentin Concert and “San Quentin”
One of the highlights of At San Quentin was Cash’s performance of the song he wrote about the prison, “San Quentin.” Cash performed two new songs for the prisoners, with one being “San Quentin” and the other being “A Boy Named Sue.” He performed “San Quentin” twice.
Cash’s most famous prison song, “Folsom Prison Blues” conveys sadness and hopelessness, despite the boast about shooting a man in Reno. But “San Quentin”is a harder song, reeking of anger: “San Quentin I hate every inch of you.” Below is Cash’s performance at San Quentin in 1969.
The 1958 Performance and Prisoner A-45200
Although the 1958 concert at San Quentin did not yield an album, it did significantly affect music history. A year earlier, an 18-year-old man had been arrested for burglary and, after an attempt to escape from jail, he was sent to San Quentin Prison. Although a judge sentenced the man to fifteen years, the prisoner only ended up serving two. But during those two years, the young man attended the 1958 Johnny Cash concert. And it helped inspire the young prisoner, whose number was A-45200 and whose name was Merle Haggard. The prisoner worked to change his ways, joined a prison band, and devoted his own life to country music.
Haggard later recalled Johnny Cash’s performance at the prison. “He had the right attitude. He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards—he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us.”
For more on Merle Haggard, the following documentary tells about the singer’s early life. The video addresses Haggard’s stint at San Quentin around the 13:40 mark.
What is your favorite prison song? Leave your two cents in the comments.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)