Listen to this track by the original outlaw and country-rockabilly badass Man-in-Black Johnny Cash with the live version of his take on T.J “Red” Arnall’s “Cocaine Blues” as taken from his titanic 1968 At Folsom Prison album. This is a monumental track from an historic record that mixes two warring ingredients that drove Cash up until then, and arguably continued to drive him; violence and spirituality.
Here’s a tale of the former, the story of wife-killer and cokehead Willy Lee, who shoots his other half and high-tails it, too slow as it turns out, to Juarez Mexico, only to be picked up by the Law. The song is barked out by Cash, who is hoarse and enthusiastic as the narrator of this tale of outlawry, delivering it to a roomful of men who may well have been guilty of some of the same things as the ill-fated Willy Lee.
But, what is happening with the performance of this tale of drug abuse and murder is actually the exact opposite of that side of human activity: this is ministry.
Thus, the song represents both sides of Cash’s coin, just by the sheer audacity he had by singing it to the prisoners of Folsom Prison. Performing this tale of murder and desperation becomes an act of empathy, and compassion.
Even if this song comes off as a Western outlaw story, it could be translated pretty much into any milleu, which is why his audience is so receptive to it. And with Cash singing it, you get all of the dimensions of the story; the absurdity, the violence, a streak of black humour, and of course the morality. That’s the kind of interpreter he was. Johnny Cash was ultimately a master storyteller, with a voice that is completely believable applied to whatever tale he happened to be telling. That was one of his many strengths as a performer.
And here’s another area where Cash excelled: reading an audience. He could choose material that they could see themselves in, and bring it off in an utterly convincing way. And this is certainly the case here. But, this performance is on a whole other level, delivered to an audience of forgotten men, of men who are not credited with their own humanity. And this is where the ministry aspect comes in, with a clear act to embody the Christian principle of visiting prisoners and ministering to them. What better way to reinforce their humanity than by singing to them, and with material that they can relate to, either seriously or comically?
That Cash himself had struggled with drug addiction, and that he wrestled with his own self-destructive tendencies only makes this act more powerful. He was imperfect. Yet, he came with his band, his wife, and his conviction that those men deserved to be entertained, to be sung to. In many ways, his visit to Folsom Prison was about ministering to himself as well, having then recently turned himself around where drugs were concerned. You can hear how connected he is to the audience on this tune, but on the whole album as well.
The fact that this record was a smash hit after a number of years when Cash’s star was waning is almost secondary to the cultural impact it had. Cash would record at San Quentin the next year, with the same drive and conviction that you’re hearing here, this time with more faith in the project where Columbia Records was concerned. They’d taken something of a risk with Folsom, a live concert in a room of convicts being something of a precedent. But Cash had delivered. Authenticity and conviction would continue to be Cash’s pillar of strength for decades after this historic performance.
It’s his conviction, the strength of his material, and his ability to translate it musically that sustained him for decades, eventually into the early ’90s, when Def Jam founder Rick Rubin decided to produce a series of bare-bones albums with Cash after having produced a succession of hip hop acts who crafted material about murder, mayhem, and imprisonment as well.
And with songs like Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” in his hands, he was a musical minister to us, too – to the end.
For more information, check out this article about the making of Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison.
And for a personal greeting from the Man in Black Himself, head on over to JohnnyCash.com