Saturday, 7 September 2013

Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash At San Quentin June 1969

In January 1969, Johnny Cash and June Carter had visited Vietnam to play concerts for the US troops stationed at Long Binh Air Force Base in Saigon. They slept in a trailer there during a night of heavy bombardment by the Viet Cong, and discovered the next morning that their trailer had been moved several feet by the shock waves. Cash later spoke of hearing the shells falling: “After you hear that sound, you never want there to be a war again, ever.” During their stay in Vietnam they often played ten shows a day for the troops. Cash came down with a fever, and was prescribed Dexedrine tablets — which quickly sparked drug-related problems that were a hangover from earlier addictions. He went on to play more concerts throughout the Far East, but when the show reached Tokyo he was unable to sing or even stand. Once again, he fought to get his habit under control.

Since the Folsom Prison album had been so successful, the decision was made to attempt to repeat the winning formula — though this may have been sparked by the fact that Britain’s Granada TV wanted to film Cash playing a prison concert. This time, the venue chosen was the San Quentin State Prison in California’s Marin County, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Larger and older than Folsom, the maximum security prison held 6,000 hardened inmates and had 1,500 staff. Cash had first played there in 1959, when Merle Haggard was one of the inmates in the audience.

Both concert (and film) were recorded in San Quentin’s mess hall on February 24, 1969, in front of approximately 1,000 inmates (and an unknown number of machine gun -toting guards). Bob Johnston was the album’s producer, and the personnel of the Johnny Cash Show were the same as for Folsom Prison, with the exception of Bob Wootton as guitarist Luther Perkins’ replacement. The atmosphere at the show was tense, due to escalating violence between rival prison gangs in the preceding weeks. “Best behaviour advised” read the prison poster announcing the concert. In Rolling Stone, Ralph Gleason called Cash’s performance “right on the edge”, since the singer skilfully whipped up the prisoners’ enthusiasm without actually causing a riot. This time, Cash performed without the aid of drugs, and the results are even better than the Folsom Prison album — the sound quality is much better, and although Cash’s voice sounds a little strained at times, he also sounds more self-assured. The band are also on great form, and far more energetic than at Folsom.

The resulting album spent 22 weeks at number one on the country charts, and four weeks at number one on the pop charts, and both the album and the ‘A Boy Named Sue’ single became certified million sellers. That year, LIFE magazine had claimed that Johnny Cash and Muhammad Ali were currently the two best-known people in the world. When the year ended, nine of Cash’s albums were in the charts, and Columbia proudly announced that during that year in the USA, Johnny Cash had outsold The Beatles.

Three years later, Cash testified before a Senate Subcommittee on penitentiary reform. He also continued to play prison gigs until 1977 — when he played Folsom again — after which he stopped for good. Prisons had by this point become simply too dangerous, and Cash probably felt that he’d done enough for this particular cause. In 2000, an extended CD of the San Quentin concert was issued, containing nine previously unreleased tracks; the censor’s bleeping was also removed.

All songs written by Johnny Cash unless otherwise indicated.

Big River
(Added for the extended CD.)
Cash got the inspiration for this song from reading an article about himself in TV Radio Mirror magazine, the first line of which read: “Johnny Cash has the Big River blues in his life.” Cash wrote the song — once again about a love gone wrong and gone missing — in the back seat of a car in White Plains, New York, and later commented, “I finished the song before I ever finished the article.”

Cash had wanted to record it as a slow 12-bar blues, but producer Sam Phillips chose to go for a rockabilly treatment instead, with Jack Clement playing an open-tuned Gibson with a bottleneck. Cash later admitted that Phillips had been right: “I thought it was fabulous. The groove he’d heard in his head was so much more powerful than mine.”
In fact, the guitar playing totally makes the record. Bob Dylan later described the lyrics as: “words turned into bone”. Released as the B-side of Sun single 283, this went to number one on the country charts in its own right.

I Still Miss Someone (Johnny Cash/Roy Cash Jr)
(Added for the extended CD.)
Written with his brother Roy, this is possibly Cash’s most covered composition, with versions to date by (among others) Joan Baez, Julie Andrews, Fairport Convention, Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, Linda Ronstadt and Percy Sledge. It’s a wonderful song about carrying a torch for a lost love, and even the mildly irritating backing vocals of this version can’t ruin it. The best thing on the album, it was released as the B-side of ‘Don’t Take Your Guns To Town’ in December 1958.

Wreck Of The Old (Arranged by J. Cash/B. Johnston/N. Blake)
A traditional folk song, loosely based on the true story of a 1903 train crash. Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 recording of the song had been the first million-selling country record. Cash’s version is respectful rather than inspired.

I Walk The Line
Cash would claim that the music for this song had been inspired by the accidental twisting of a rehearsal tape of one of his Air Force jam sessions during its playback, which resulted in the sound of backwards chords. “The drone and those weird chord changes stayed with me,” he later said.

He finally completed the song in November 1955 while on the road with a Sun package tour. Backstage at a gig in Gladewater, Texas, Cash was strumming the chords he’d based upon the rehearsal tape, and told Carl Perkins that he was trying to write a song about “being true” — to oneself, to one’s marital partner and to God — and that his working titles for it were ‘I’m Still Being True’ or ‘I’m Walking The Line’. Perkins suggested that he abbreviate the latter to ‘I Walk The Line’, and Cash was sufficiently inspired by their conversation to finish writing the song. It supposedly only took him 20 minutes to complete, and he later commented that it was one of those songs just waiting to be written.

In a sense, Carl Perkins was simply repaying a favour — a few months earlier, Cash had told Perkins an anecdote from his service days, which Perkins used as the basis for his song ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.

With this song, Cash was publicly pledging his fidelity to his wife, Vivienne, who had serious concerns that her husband might succumb to the temptations of young female fans while he was living the life of a touring musician. According to an article in Country Music International magazine, the phrase “walking the line” dates back to the era of railroad construction, when makeshift brothels sprang up alongside the rail tracks; “walking the line” thus meant to carry on walking past these temptations.

Sam Phillips thought the first version of the song that Cash recorded was too slow, and told him to play it again faster for a second version. Cash was upset that the faster version was the one Phillips chose to release in May 1956, but the producer evidently knew what he was doing, since the record (Sun single 241) went gold, selling over two million copies, hitting number one in the country charts and even breaking into the pop charts (at number 17). The song — which also won a BMI Award — has a truly epic quality, and the fact that Cash could write something this good this early in his career is ample proof of his talent.

The lyric’s opening line inspired ex-Velvet Underground artist, John Cale’s, song ‘Close Watch’. The song would also provide the title for the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic, which starred Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. See also The Complete Sun Recordings.

All of the above four songs are good, uptempo versions, with some great guitar from Carl Perkins. Cash’s voice occasionally sounds strained, but that’s the only complaint.

Darlin’ Companion (John Sebastian)
One of the lesser-known items from The Lovin’ Spoonful’s songbook, performed as a country duet with June Carter. Not as good as the original, but not a disgrace either.

I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound (J. Cuttie)
(Added for the extended CD.)
Written by a prisoner in San Quentin, who had given Cash the sheet music for it the night before; since Cash couldn’t read music, he set the lyrics to a tune of his own. It’s an impressive folk ballad, verging on gospel.

Starkville City Jail
Written just before the concert, about Cash’s arrest in Starkville, Mississippi in 1966 for picking flowers at 2 a.m. (while drunk and pilled-up, needless to say). Cash spent the night in jail and was fined $36 — and broke a toe after kicking the cell wall in frustration. The song itself is an impressive folk ballad.

San Quentin
Written two days before the concert, at the suggestion of Granada TV film director, Michael Darlow. It’s a slow and powerful ballad written from the viewpoint of a prisoner questioning the point of the prison system, weakened slightly by unnecessary backing vocals. The song nearly caused a riot, as prisoners leapt up onto tables, yelling their approval of the lyrics. At its close, the song is reprised by popular demand.

Wanted Man (Bob Dylan)
Dylan had co-written this song — a good country rocker about life on the run — with Cash shortly before, while staying at his house near Nashville. Cash publicly (and correctly) acclaimed Dylan as “the greatest writer of our time”.

A Boy Named Sue (Shel Silverstein)
The epic tale of a man who becomes a tough fighter because he’s been saddled with an unfortunate first name. Humour writer and cartoonist Shel Silverstein gave Cash the “lyrics” to this at a party five days before the concert. It had no tune, but Cash and guitarist Bob Wootton improvised one on the spot, as Cash balanced the lyric sheet on a music stand in front of him. The song was released as a single in July 1969 and went to number one in the country charts and number two in the pop charts, making it Cash’s all-time biggest hit. The word “bitch” in the phrase “son of a bitch” was censored with a bleep (removed for the extended CD version).

The inspiration for the song was a real person, Judge Sue K. Hicks from Madisonville, whom Silverstein had met at a juridical conference. The song also prompted two “answer” songs, Lois Williams’ ‘A Gal Called Sam’ and Jane Morgan’s ‘A Girl Named Johnny Cash’.

(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (T. Dorsey)
Classic gospel tune that had been recorded by Sun Records’ “Million Dollar Quartet” (Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins) and also by Presley solo. Cash’s gentle and moving version has the benefit of autoharp and backing vocals from the Carter girls, but Presley’s version still takes some beating.

Folsom Prison Blues
(Added for the extended CD.)
While in the Air Force, Cash had seen Crane Wilbur’s 1951 film, Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison, which starred Steve Cochran as a crusading prisoner. The movie — about a campaign to improve prison conditions — definitely made a big impression on him (he immediately asked for it to be shown again on the base), and he later claimed to have written this song the same night he saw the movie.

It’s a moderately fast-paced rocker about a life gone wrong: the protagonist commits murder, ends up in prison and longs for life on the outside. The song’s most famous line, about killing a man “just to see him die”, Cash came up with after thinking hard about what would be “the worst reason a person could have for killing another person”. A tale of violence and repentance, it can be viewed as concerning human limitation in its broadest sense; as Cash later pointed out, “Most of us are living in one little kind of prison or another.”

Unfortunately, whether consciously or not, both lyrically and musically Cash based his song upon ‘Crescent City Blues’, a song from Gordon Jenkins’ 1953 concept album, Seven Dreams. Cash subsequently stated that at the time he wrote the song, he “really had no idea I would be a professional recording artist. I wasn’t trying to rip anybody off”.

At the time of its initial release, Gordon Jenkins apparently wasn’t aware of the song’s existence, but when Cash rerecorded the song 13 years later for his Folsom Prison live album, Jenkins got to hear it and subsequently sued. Cash settled out of court in the early Seventies, and Jenkins was given a writing credit on the song from then on. Sam Phillips had originally wanted to send the song to Tennessee Ernie Ford to cover, but Cash insisted on releasing his own version instead.

Released as Sun single 232 in December 1955, this good, uptempo version, with great guitar and enthusiastic audience response, lacks the verve of the later live recording, but features some very nice guitar. The song is also at the root of the popular misconception that Johnny Cash actually served time in prison, and his resulting outlaw image.

Ring Of Fire (J. Carter/M. Kilgore)
(Added for the extended CD.)
Written by June Carter about the pain of her affair with Cash, co-writer Kilgore would later be best man at their wedding. Apparently based upon a poem titled ‘Love’s Ring Of Fire’, the song’s original title was ‘Love’s Fiery Ring’. First recorded in 1962 by June’s sister Anita; given the subject matter, it’s somewhat ironic that Cash wanted to record the song himself as soon as he heard it.

The tune was supposedly inspired by music June had heard while travelling in Mexico, which fitted perfectly with the wonderful mariachi trumpet arrangement Cash uses on his version (the idea for which supposedly came to him in a dream). Since Cash wisely didn’t trust producer Don Law to capture the sound he wanted, he drafted in his old Sun colleague, Jack Clement, to arrange the trumpet parts.

The song was recorded in March 1963 and released the following month, becoming a deserved hit that reached number one in the country charts (and stayed there for seven weeks) and number 17 in the pop charts. A few weeks after the original recording session, Cash recorded a Spanish-language version, ‘Anillo De Fuego’. The song has since been covered by numerous artists, including Carlene Carter, Social Distortion and Wall Of Voodoo.

A so-so version, with one truly bizarre aspect: the Carters’ attempt to vocally duplicate the trumpet part. See also Ring Of Fire.

He Turned Water Into Wine
(Added for the extended CD.)
A far better version than the one on The Holy Land. This is more like full-on gospel, with a bit of guts to it.

Daddy Sang Bass (Carl Perkins)
(Added for the extended CD.)
Again, a far more spirited version than the studio recording on The Holy Land.

The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago (L.R. Dalton)
(Added for the extended CD.)
The spirit was obviously moving them, since this is also far superior to the version on Hymns By Johnny Cash.

Closing Medley: Folsom Prison Blues/I Walk The Line/Ring Of Fire/The Rebel - Johnny Yuma (J. Cash/J Carter/M. Kilgore/R. Markowitz/A. Fenady)
(Added for the extended CD.)
June Carter and Carl Perkins take lead vocals on two snippets of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, the Carter Family deliver a snatch of ‘I Walk The Line’ and the Statler Brothers offer the chorus of ‘Ring Of Fire’, before Cash himself closes the concert out with a fragment of ‘Johnny Yuma’ and a final reprise of ‘Folsom’.

Author: Peter Hogan

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