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When the Jailhouse Rocked

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Thursday, September 23, 2004; Page C04


The Making of a Masterpiece

_____Arts & Living_____
The Books section has reviews as well as area literary events.
The Washington Post Book Club gives access to discounts, discussions and special events.

By Michael Streissguth

Da Capo. 191 pp. $24


The Life, Love, and Faith of an American Legend

By Steve Turner

W/Thomas Nelson. 298 pp. $24.99


An American Man

By Bill Miller

Pocket. 176 pp. $30

What is arguably the most important event in the history of American country music occurred in just about the most unlikely place imaginable: the stark, heavily guarded Dining Room 2 at Folsom Prison in California. There, on Jan. 13, 1968, Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three -- with crucial help from June Carter, soon to become June Carter Cash -- gave two concerts for the inmates. Both were recorded, but the first was far and away the best, and it was from the first that Columbia Records drew almost the entire album it released a few months later, "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison."

It may or may not be the greatest country album ever made (for what little it's worth, in my view that's just what it is), but it's almost certainly the most influential: album, that is, not single recording, top honors for which might go to Jimmie Rodgers's "Blue Yodel #1 (T for Texas)" or Hank Williams's "Cold, Cold Heart" or Patsy Cline's "Crazy" or Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee." Cash sang with power, passion and humor, and when he was joined by Carter on "Jackson," the dining hall exploded. The concert was recorded with keen fidelity, despite adverse acoustical conditions, with the result that the album positively bristles with life. By now I must have listened to it hundreds of times, finding something new and wonderful in it every one of them.

The album had two important long-range effects. It gave a powerful jolt to Cash's career, which had foundered in the mid- and late 1960s as his amphetamine habit got out of control. Columbia followed the Folsom album with another live concert performance, this one at San Quentin; combined, the two albums made Cash a national figure and opened the way for him to become, well before his death a year ago, an American legend. In "Cash: The Autobiography" (1997), he wrote: "I've always thought it ironic that it was a prison concert, with me and the convicts getting along just as fellow rebels, outsiders and miscreants should, that pumped up my marketability to the point where ABC thought I was respectable enough to have a weekly network TV show." Second, the album did almost as much for country music as it did for Cash. It brought country out of a genre that was near-universally ridiculed by the illuminati and into the mainstream. What was true of me doubtless was true of hundreds of thousands of others: It was the first country album I bought, and for a long time the only one I owned. Johnny Cash, who loved trains and loved to sing about them (e.g., on "Folsom," his raucous rendition of "Orange Blossom Special"), was the mighty engine who pulled country along on the exhilarating ride it enjoyed from the 1970s well into the 1990s. "Folsom Prison" did for him and for country music exactly what, a dozen years before, "Ellington at Newport" had done for Duke Ellington and for jazz: It was the agent of rebirth.

How all of this came about is the story Michael Streissguth attempts to tell in "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison." Attempts, that is, because Streissguth (associate professor of English at Le Moyne College in Syracuse) writes clotted, graceless prose that at times requires the services of an interpreter, my favorite example being: "An infamous prison since the first convict was admitted in the 1880s, Cash's hit single 'Folsom Prison Blues' (of 1955 and 1968) and his recorded concert there had brought it international notoriety." If you find that as amusing as I do, you'll be pleased to know that many more such delights await you in Streissguth's (mercifully) brief text.

Still, there's interesting stuff here. It's generally assumed that Cash connected with prisoners so well because he'd been one himself (as had Haggard), but he "had merely stewed in a jail a few nights after alcohol and pill binges." He did feel powerful empathy for prisoners, and for other Americans whose lives were hard: "The inmates' plight roused an innate compassion in Cash that often led him to act on behalf of others." But Cash didn't go to Folsom for purely eleemosynary reasons. It was "his calculated guess that a recorded prison encounter would make for damn good theater," and, of course, he was right. As Steve Turner writes in "The Man Called Cash," his "authorized" biography:

"The album cemented Cash's image as an outlaw. It didn't matter that he'd never served real time. What mattered was that he not only looked the part -- rugged and weathered -- but he identified with a huge audience of hardened criminals in a way that implied he was on their side -- not that of the law. Many of the songs, written from the perspective of the imprisoned, addressed the guards with a mocking sneer. In 'Cocaine Blues' the lines 'Early one morning while making the rounds / I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down,' were met by a wave of applause, presumably coming from men who'd either done the same or wished they could. Cash did nothing to quell their enthusiasm."

Doubtless he knew that the prisoners would welcome him every bit as exuberantly and gratefully as in fact they did. They were told that the concert would be recorded for an album -- which must have thrilled even the most hard-bitten of them -- and they were encouraged "to cheer and howl and roar throughout the show," which would give added immediacy and power to the recording. They happily obliged, most particularly (and famously) when he sang, in "Folsom Prison Blues," that he'd "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," a line that, according to Turner, Cash "said he made up after asking himself what the most evil reason for killing someone could be."

In this as in most other respects, Turner bends over backward to give Cash the benefit of the doubt. The emphasis in his biography is on Cash's religious faith (his publisher specializes in "books emphasizing Christian, inspirational and family value themes"), and though Turner does not shy away from Cash's drug abuse and harsh temper, he opts for the sunny side and thus paints a somewhat rose-tinted portrait. His assessment of Cash's marriage to June Carter is touching ("She's my rock, my anchor," he said. "She's always there") but honest, acknowledging the tensions that his addiction produced. Ultimately, though, "The Man Called Cash" is only serviceable; surely someone else eventually will write a more candid and nuanced life of this complex, gifted and accomplished man.

As for Bill Miller's "Cash: An American Man," it's an adoring footnote to the Cash iconography. Miller appears to have been Cash's number one fan and to have performed many services for his hero after the two met when Miller was still a boy, including "Youth Editor for a series of journals published by" the Johnny Cash Fan Club and, later, manager of Cash's souvenir business, producing "items for sale to his fans." He and Cash collaborated on assembling an immense collection of mementos, ranging from handwritten drafts of song lyrics to letters to concert tickets and programs. "Cash: An American Man" consists largely of handsome color reproductions of these in a coffee-table-book format. It's strictly a scrapbook for die-hard fans, but it's nicely done and will give them pleasure.

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