I hate to jump to conclusions here, but if you put Johnny Cash at a concert in a prison and record it, the album is bound to be a smashing success.
Everyone knows about his iconic live album At Folsom Prison in 1968, which was the first of a series of live album recordings at various prisons. At San Quentin was the second of the collection, and was released on June 16th of 1969.
Following the success of his work with the Folsom Prison project, country music fans once again loved the live album concept, thus resulting in his 31st album (and second live album) making its way to the number one spot on the U.S. Country Album charts on this date in 1969.
At San Quentin featured Cash stepping within the prison walls and playing for a raucous crowd of San Quentin State prisoners. The high energy levels throughout the recording made the live album unique, and is what probably helped At San Quentin stay at the top of the charts for 20 straight weeks.
The live album went triple platinum and was recognized by the RIAA in 2003, and was also one of the most decorated projects of Cash’s country music career. At San Quentin was up for numerous Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year. It eventually brought home a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for what is considered the very first performance of “A Boy Named Sue.”
There are many iconic songs that were included in the track list, such as “I Walk the Line,” “San Quentin,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Funny enough, Cash actually played “San Quentin” twice because his audience loved it so much.
And along with the timeless musical performances, the concert also provided one of the most well-known pictures of Johnny Cash.
I wouldn’t do it justice trying to describe it:
Johnny Cash giving the middle finger during his San Quentin prison performance, 1969. Photograph by Jim Marshall. pic.twitter.com/Xhe2qth8Iv
According to the liner notes from the 2000 reissue, the middle finger was directed a film crew who was blocking Johnny’s view of the inmates in the crowd. When he asked them to get off the stage, and they didn’t, then came the bird to the camera. However, Jim Marshall, the legendary photographer who took the photo, claims he asked Johnny to take one for the warden of the prison:
“I said, ‘John, let’s do a shot for the warden.'”
Marshall also said that this particular photo of Johnny Cash is:
“Probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world.”
And he’s probably right…
But getting back to the music itself, At San Quentin provides a surreal audio experience when listened to front to back. The hundreds of prisoners in the crowd almost act as a instrument within the band, and certainly stood out in two of the album’s most recognizable performances that were both played live for the very first time at the prison concert.
“San Quentin” definitely knows its audience, and could even be described as “preaching to the choir,” but above all else, it is badass that Johnny basically went into the prison and sh*t-talked it.
The prisoners certainly loved it:
And then you have “A Boy Named Sue,” which went on to become one of Cash’s most beloved songs and was actually written by poet Shel Silverstein. It is believed that Johnny decided to play the song spontaneously and it wasn’t originally a part of the planned set list.
The humorous storytelling of the lyrics made it another received song within the walls of the San Quentin State Prison:
I guess I’ll just be listening to all of Johnny Cash’s live prison albums for the rest of the day…