Watch Bob Dylan and The Band cover Johnny Cash’s anthem ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ in 1999
We’re dipping into the Far Out Magazine vault to bring you some rare footage of Bob Dylan covering Johnny Cash’s anthemic country hit, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ with The Band back in 1999. While the group have provided some awesome covers in their time, this one alongside Dylan and of the late, great Johnny Cash, makes it extra special.
It’s no secret that Bob Dylan had a deep affection for the legendary country singer Johnny Cash. The two singers have shared many notable moments across their long careers from the pair’s famed bootleg sessions to Cash and June Carter’s wonderful cover of Dylan’s ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, the two troubadours share a musical bond and an unbreakable friendship.
Cash may have been the elder statesman when they met but he instantly recognised the talent in Dylan. They met at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and Cash was a fan ever since, “I had a portable record player that I’d take along on the road,” Cash wrote in Cash: The Autobiography. “And I’d put on [The] Freewheelin’ [Bob Dylan] backstage, then go out and do my show, then listen again as soon as I came off. After a while at that, I wrote Bob a letter telling him how much of a fan I was. He wrote back almost immediately, saying he’d been following my music since ‘I Walk the Line,’ and so we began a correspondence.”
The feeling was most certainly mutual, “In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him – the greatest of the greats then and now,” Dylan said upon Cash’s sad passing in 2003. “Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English.
“I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul.” The pair have shared a musical connection from the very beginning.
Dylan has often picked up the odd Johnny Cash song during his live performances but there was none better than his cover of Cash’s famous 1955 hit ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. A wonderful folk song combining the two strains of folk that Cash used throughout his career; the train song and the prison song. Combined together with Cash’s charismatic and powerful songwriting, it was a song that was destined to define a career,
Cash has said he was inspired to write this song after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison while serving on a prison base for the United States Air Force in West Germany. Cash remembered how he came up with the classic anti-hero line, “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”, the star said, “I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that’s what came to mind.”
There was something in the folk song that clearly spoke to Dylan. The freewheelin’ Bob Dylan picked up the track during some 1991 shows and has periodically picked the song up for a live performance to knock the house down. While it’s hard to imagine Dylan breaking rock under the hot [rison yard sun, he’s most certainly a travelling minstrel. That’s the feeling Dylan brings to this cover from 1999. It’s not the same impassioned performance The Man in Black brings but is instead a more cultured and cultivated rendition of the song.
Allowing the instrumentals to land more significantly, Dylan crafts a more appreciative cover of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. It’s an appreciation of Cash as a songsmith, as a singer, and most importantly, as a storyteller. While Cash is the star of his own story, in Dylan’s cover, he avoids the spotlight and puts the song’s creator, Johnny Cash, as the leading man.
Watch below as Bob Dylan takes on Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ in 1999.