Johnny Cash’s Concerts at San Quentin

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.

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    Oregon’s Death Penalty: 25 Minutes to Go

    Last week, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber granted a reprieve to a condemned man and announced that he would do the same for any scheduled execution during the remainder of his term in office. Gov. Kitzhaber asked state officials to consider other options besides the death penalty and explained, “I simply cannot participate once again in something that I believe to be morally wrong,” Gov. Kitzhaber further explained that as a licensed physician he had taken an oath to “do no harm.” In making his emotional announcement, Gov. Kitzhaber told how he was haunted by the fact he had allowed Oregon’s only two modern executions.

    Whether one agrees with Gov. Kitzhaber or not, one must respect someone who is willing to admit he erred in the past and who takes a moral stand. Gov. Kitzhaber recognized that the trend around the world in recent years has been toward taking a moral stand against state killings when other options, like life in prison, exist. Recognizing there are a number of problems with the American death penalty, Gov. Kitzhaber is putting a moratorium on Oregon executions to allow the state to reconsider whether or not it wishes to continue executing people.

    The immediate reprieve stopped the execution of 49-year-old Gary Haugen, who had waived his appeals and wished to be executed. Haugen’s attorney noted that the condemned man, desiring his own execution, would not be happy with the reprieve.

    Haugen was within two weeks of his scheduled execution, but Johnny Cash performed a song going further in imagining a condemned man counting down the final 25 minutes before his execution. The song, “25 Minutes to Go,” was written by Shel Silverstein, who also wrote Cash’s hit song, “A Boy Named Sue.” One may hear Silverstein’s sense of humor even in a song like “25 Minutes to Go.” The song’s author may be best known for his children’s books, including The Giving Tree.

    In the following video, someone has put together some cool illustrations to go with Johnny Cash’s performance of “25 Minutes to Go” from his famous performance at Folsom Prison on Jan. 13, 1968. (Do you know who did the animation?) Check it out.

    You also may watch Cash in another live performance in a video on YouTube. Johnny Cash was another gutsy man like Gov. John Kitzhaber. I miss him.

    Bonus Johnny Cash-related Death Penalty News: Johnny’s daughter Roseanne Cash is reuniting with her ex-husband Rodney Crowell for an anti-death penalty concert in Nashville on December 19. John Hiatt will also perform.

    What do you think of Johnny Cash’s “25 Minutes to Go”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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