“San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell. May your walls fall and may I live to tell. May all the world forget you ever stood. And may all the world regret you did no good.”
– Johnny Cash
“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. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.”
– Merle Haggard (prisoner at San Quentin at the time)
Two days before Johnny Cash’s 37th birthday he played the legendary San Quentin concert, and it was recorded AND it was filmed! There are several releases and a documentary available, today we are celebrating the 45 year anniversary of this superb show.
When I was little boy I was very interested in music, the radio and records. My father had a small but very good record collection. Among the treasures in his collection was this album, Johnny Cash – Live at San Quentin. My father told me the story of the album, and I remember that the Norwegian broadcast company (yes there were only one channel at the time, early 70s) showed the actual concert. It was very late at night but my father woke me and I got to see this legendary show.
It marked me for life.
Johnny Cash at San Quentin (full documentary, with songs):
The interviews with the prisoners and the guards are incredibly touching and harrowing, the “whole deal” with Cash’s songs and the documentary footage makes this a must see, and one of the best music films ever made.
At San Quentin is the 31st overall album by Johnny Cash, and a recording of a live concert given to the inmates of San Quentin State Prison. The concert was filmed by Granada Television, produced and directed by Michael Darlow. The album was a follow-up to Cash’s previous live album, the critically acclaimed and commercially successful At Folsom Prison.
The album was certified gold on August 12, 1969, platinum and double platinum on November 21, 1986, and triple platinum on March 27, 2003 by the RIAA. The album was nominated for a number of Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and won Best Male Country Vocal Performance for “A Boy Named Sue.”
There have been several releases with different songs and set order.
Here is a fine radio documentary about the San Quentin concert from PRX.org narrated by Rodney Crowell:
The original producer, Bob Johnston, speaks about the excitement and fear, as does Jim Marshall, photographer of the famous “Johnny flipping the bird at San Quentin” photo. We’ll also hear about Johnny Cash’s views on the lock-up from bassist Marshall Grant, son John Carter Cash, singer/songwriter Larry Gatlin and music writer Anthony DeCurtis.
The best release is the reissue from 2007 (Nov 2006 in some areas) It adds 13 tracks to the 10 from the original album, it is presented as complete, but I’ve read somewhere that there’s more…I’m not sure. The 2007 reissue has the Grenada documentary included, a very fine bonus.
“We felt a great responsibility as the prison environment, and especially a maximum security prison like San Quentin, is far removed from that of conventional venues, you can’t guarantee the safety of people inside there and we were particularly concerned about the women, June and Mrs Carter. Some of the prisoners in there hadn’t seen a women in decades and once the doors shut we were cut-off from the outside world. I remember thinking that there were not many guards on view. I asked the governor about this, saying there didn’t seem to be enough if the prisoners began rioting. He said that there were 100 guards but if the 1000 prisoners attending the concert did riot even treble that would not be enough to contain them. I realised then that the prisoners really policed themselves and that a prison like that is a law unto itself. In the later years we were no longer able to play maximum security prisons, as the authorities felt it too dangerous to allow.”
– Lou Robin (Johnny Cash’s manager and organiser of the San Quentin concert)
Listen to the great intro to The Last Thing On My Mind by June Carter Cash, very funny!
Here it is in all it’s Spotify glory, Johnny Cash At San Quentin:
In those days Johnny Cash played at prisons frequently, identifying with the prisoners, and had also played at San Quentin before, at the beginning of the 60s. The record is exceptional, with Johnny Cash, backed by his band, the Tennessee Three, topping a bill including rockabilly favorite Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family, with bluegrass and country pioneer Mother Maybelle Carter and June Carter Cash.
“In 2000, Sony Legacy issued an expanded CD version of this landmark 1969 live Cash LP, which included “A Boy Named Sue,” the Shel Silverstein novelty number that became one of Cash’s biggest hits. The original LP contained ten songs from Cash’s show, which actually ran far longer; the CD release added eight additional Cash performances. That, of course, happened before his death and the unexpected success of the Walk the Line. Now, this 2-CD set presents the entire concert, start to finish. Still grippingly intense after 37 years, it not only assembles all Cash’s performances, but those by the other members of his stage show: June Carter, her mother and sisters (performing as the Carter Family), Cash’s buddy Carl Perkins of “Blue Suede Shoes” (and “Daddy Sang Bass”) fame, and the Statler Brothers, known then for their 1965 hit “Flowers on the Wall.” Cash’s performances remain beyond criticism, but Perkins, the Carters, and the Statlers smoke nearly as much. Among the high points is their unreleased, spine-chilling gospel medley of “He Turned the Water into Wine,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” and “The Old Account.” The accompanying DVD comprises a documentary shot at the show by Britain’s Granada TV, in which the Cash performances act mainly as a leitmotif to its focus on San Quentin and its inmates. ”
-Rich Kienzle (Sony Legacy Edition)
Johnny Cash – San Quentin (look at the reactions on the prisoners faces!):