On 13 January 1968, Johnny Cash recorded two shows at Folsom Prison in California for the album At Folsom Prison.
Cash was first introduced to the prison in the early 1950s when he saw the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. It inspired him to write the song Folsom Prison Blues, which was included on his debut album in 1957 and became one of his signature songs.
Though Cash had never spent any time in jail, prisoners related to him and the song. He started receiving requests to perform in prisons. His first performance was at Huntsville State Prison in Texas in 1957, and this was followed by San Quentin in California the following year.
By 1967 Cash’s career was in the doldrums thanks to his spiralling drug use. He managed to get his problems under control but was in need of a career boost. He developed an idea for an album recorded in a prison. Folsom Prison agreed to his plan.
Cash gave two shows at the prison, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, to give him two chances at a good performance for the album. Both shows ended with Greystone Chapel, a song written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley.
Sherley was in the audience and completely unaware that the song he’d written had been passed to Cash the day before by the prison minister.
The album was a critical and commercial success, revitalising Cash’s career.
Cash became an outspoken advocate for prisoners’ rights at a time when the American public was waking up to the inadequacies and abuses of its penal system.
In 1972 he spoke at a US Senate hearing, recounting the stories of abuse he had been told during his numerous prison visits in the years after the Folsom show and offering a series of recommendations to improve the system: separating first time inmates from hardened criminals; keeping minor offenders out of prison; and offering inmates counselling before their release.
The album, At Folsom Prison, is widely regarded as one of the most influential ever produced.