Unlocking a single moment

Although we might like to think it, music never causes social change. However, an intelligent multimedia reissue of a classic live recording reminds us that it can bear witness to society, writes Tara Brabazon

February 4, 2009

You know that rock’n’roll is over when Johnny Rotten advertises butter and Iggy Pop flogs insurance, although I was never impressed by their blokey pseudo-revolutions – just angry young men spitting at the powerful. The most unsettling rockers were the earliest ones. Little Richard and Eddie Cochran were menacing because they were new. Their asymmetrical hair, strange suits, banshee screams and lippy sneers seemed positively threatening. Johnny and Iggy were rebels with great haircuts, but not much lurked under the quiff.

No matter how much we hope that listening to the Velvet Underground will moderate the market economy, there is no causal relationship between hearing a song and creating a movement for social change. The myth of the 1960s – of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Berkeley – fused a relationship between sound and action, singing and doing. We are still living with that confusion. That is why we despair when we see a former Sex Pistol selling his face while filling it with bread and butter.

Our current economic system of redundancies, wildcat strikes and repossessions makes the “revolution” of May 1968 look like a parent-teacher meeting. As the credit crunch moves into meltdown, the increasingly mythic narratives of Johnny Cash remain steadfast monuments in contemporary popular culture. If possible, he has become more famous since his death, a beacon of credibility, authenticity and defiance. His voice transcends genre. His politics seem to suit the times, even as they change.

As if celebrating Barack Obama’s presidency, a new version of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison has been released. It is an important reissue. It is still one of the most famous live concerts, managing the social and technical challenges of recording a show in a penitentiary. Perhaps because of these difficulties, two of Cash’s performances at Folsom were recorded on 13 January 1968. Most of the famous 16-track album came from the first show. The re-release includes the (almost completely) unheard second performance.

As an album, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison matters because it emerged just after Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was underproduced during the overproduced end of the 1960s. The reissue captures Cash’s raw sound but in a new polished package, showcasing the uncut banter between him and the prisoners, a new documentary produced by Bestor Cram and Michael Streissguth, and a booklet presenting the story of the Folsom performances along with photographs taken at the time.

There is also a fascinating short “special feature” interview with record producer Bob Irwin, explaining how he remixed the old material for a new audience. The errors, mistakes and flaws in the original performance can now be heard for their archival value to fans and historians, rather than edited out to suit the sensibilities of a “family” audience.

The most moving parts of the documentary capture the views of Folsom’s former guards, prisoners and their families. Glen Sherley’s children, Ronda and Bruce, speak about their father. An inmate at the time of the concert, Sherley wrote the song Greystone Chapel, which was sung by Cash and included on the album. He went on to perform with the Cash ensemble after his release. Yet the tragedy of Sherley’s life is frozen on camera in a devastating moment when Ronda finds her father’s death certificate among his papers. It reveals that he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. This tragic ending to a tough life shows that pain, humiliation and loss must remain tethered to memories of Folsom and the concert.

The documentary presents these dissonant narratives of Folsom and Cash that merge when questioning how the rights of prisoners connected with the wider civil-rights movement. Millard Dedmon, a former Folsom prisoner who was in the concert’s audience, realized the paradox.

“The vast majority of people who go into prison someday are released back into society. Now there’s a serious thing to think about, you know. What are you doing to him while he’s in there? You’re making an animal out of him.”

The difficult issue that resonates through such testimony is how consciousness of the prison environment was enhanced, moderated or silenced through Cash’s Folsom concert. Johnny Cash argued for prison reform, even appearing before a US Senate subcommittee on the subject. He remained an entertainer who thought about music and society, and music in society. But his commitment and desire for reform did not transform him into Michel Foucault with a guitar.

Cash lived the great paradox of popular culture. Pop never causes social change, no matter how righteous or raucous it may seem. Metaphorically, popular culture is gauze that stretches over a social and cultural environment, filtering filaments and fragments, hopes and ambitions, blood and sweat that may or may not be reconstituted as a complete and useful entity on the other side.

That is why the academic usefulness of this repackaged Folsom is bolstered by the writing and research that frame the CD and documentary. The reissue is shaped by Streissguth’s earlier book, the remarkable Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece. It is as brilliant, troubling, fascinating and inspirational as its subject.

Released in 2004 and part of Streissguth’s portfolio of books on Cash and country music, it is compact and quick to read. It is country music’s version of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies or Camera Lucida, being portable, quirky and moving. Streissguth takes one concert – a single moment in popular music history – and pushes other histories through it like a butcher feeding cuts through a mincer.

“Among everything else and perhaps above everything else, Folsom was also a social statement on behalf of disenfranchised peoples, as potent as any such statement in the rolling 1960s, for by appearing in front of America’s modern-day lepers and recording and releasing what came of it, [Cash] unapologetically told his listeners that these locked- away men deserved the compassion, if not the liberation, that the 1960s offered.”

Through this great book, Streissguth combines the spark of journalism with the innovations of cultural studies. The reason so many academics my age were drawn to cultural studies was because its practitioners seemed to interpret the world through small events, texts and moments.

They could take a seemingly insignificant photograph, song or film and make it dance, sing and move. While there were excesses and extravagances perpetuated in the name of “research”, there were also moments of magnificence. Streissguth deploys such an approach, taking one man in one concert and probing prison reform, the arc of 1960s politics, the transformation of masculinity, the loops and warping of popular music and the pain of prisoners who were ignored in an era when so many other groups were gaining liberation.

Roseanne Cash realised that “rebellion never gets old”. Unfortunately, former rebels age and die. They even do commercials for butter. With the reissue of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, we can still hear and see the man in black singing about shooting a man in Reno (just to watch him die) to prisoners who scream in appreciation. But it was also a song about paying for that crime. Many in the audience paid a much higher price and – unlike Cash – never had a chance to move down the line, let alone walk it.

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