Johnny Cash’s albums are really impressive things. His live albums, however, are truly things of wonder. The late, great country singer found a home on stage like no other man, woman or child and produced some of his best work not in the studio but instead standing under the spotlight and in front of his audience. When you think about Cash’s best work on the stage, it’s hard to think too far past his empirical live album At San Quentin.
The date was 1969 and Johnny Cash was on a bit of a roll. The artist had found success with a brand new generation and a brand new audience. A new set of fans admired his no-nonsense attitude and persona as much as his crunchy but crooning country stylings. He embodied, for many people, the passion and power of a working-class hero and no more so was this felt than in the cellblocks of America’s prisons.
Country music has long been a fixture on the sad wall of most convicts cells but when Cash decided to bring the music directly to the prisoners with his 1968 album Folsom Prison, he didn’t just change the rules, he set that rule book on fire and used his urine to extinguish it. So much so, that just a year later he was writing another request to record in a prison but this time it was San Quentin.
According to the San Quentin’s Mission Statement: “San Quentin State Prison is California’s oldest and best known correctional institution, which was established on the site currently known as a Point San Quentin, in July of 1852, as an answer to the rampant lawlessness in California at the time.” With a motto like that, you can understand the harsh conditions prisoners were facing and the difficulty that lay ahead for Cash.
The album was Cash’s 31st to date but only his second live LP. While the album would go on to be nominated for two Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, as well as winning Best Male Country Vocal Performance, it was the imprint of personality and camaraderie which, even to this day, makes it one of the best live albums ever recorded and certainly one of Cash’s finest moment on tape.
The record embodied Cash’sconnection with the working man and the unavoidable trials and tribulations of life, all the while adding a rose-tinted hue to the stories which were unfolding around him. In prison is where Cash would hone this sound and add a brand new razor-sharp edge of grit to his previously honky-tonk hindered music.
One song, in particular, during this performance, got the greatest reaction, naturally, ‘San Quentin’. The song was performed for the first time live on the stage and offered inmates a relatable story, the characters of which they knew all too well. The track was debuted in the prison and quickly given its second spin at the request of the excited inmates.
Take a look back at this rare live footage from the moment Johnny Cash performed ‘San Quentin’ live from prison.
Johnny Cash – ‘San Quentin’ lyrics:
“San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me
You’ve hosted me since nineteen sixty three
I’ve seen ’em come and go and I’ve seen them die
And long ago I stopped askin’ why
San Quentin, I hate every inch of you.
You’ve cut me and have scarred me thru an’ thru.
And I’ll walk out a wiser weaker man;
Mister Congressman why can’t you understand.
San Quentin, what good do you think you do?
Do you think I’ll be different when you’re through?
You bent my heart and mind and you may my soul,
And your stone walls turn my blood a little cold.
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.
San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me.”