Friday, January 2, 2015
Johnny Cash – “San Quentin #2” from The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983 (Disc 3) (1992 Columbia) & originally appearing on At San Quentin (1969 Columbia)


There’s a temptation to write about this Johnny Cash record as the product of Johnny Cash the consumate showman, product of the Grand Ole Opry. If At Folsom Prison (1968) was a sincere and hearfelt effort to reach out to the hurting and downtrodden in America’s prisons, it’s easy enough to view At San Quentin as a sort of “hey, that did pretty well, let’s do that again!”

And At Folsom Prison did well on the charts, so that may have factored in, but whatever cynicism I may have about the motives, one only needs to hear the raucous “no!” from the men in the audience as Cash sings, “Do you think that I’ll be different when you’re through?” Allmusic calls the album “a nominal sequel to At Folsom Prison that surpasses its predecessor and captures Cash at his rawest and wildest…” and suggests that “this is the best Johnny Cash album ever cut.”

That’s a tough one, and I’m not here to sound in on which Cash album is the greatest (some of those Rick Rubin records would be contenders, though, I’ll say that), but it’s true that Cash is wild on this album. That’s just one of many reasons it’s worth checking out the British television documentary footage of the concert. Another reason is that it really drives home how much it must have meant to the inmates to have Cash come and play for them. They didn’t care about whether or not he had just released a similar album; here was a pop star, an outlaw in his own way, come to perform for and connect with them.

The very notion that prisoners deserve basic human dignity, whatever their crimes, was a radical one, and one that deserves our attention and consideration. Cash may have been wacked out of his mind on pills, but in the end that renders him just as broken as his audience, and maybe further bolsters the connection.

I can’t imagine a pop star today doing something like this, and that’s a shame.

The video below is for San Quentin #1. #2 was from another performance on the same day, for which I cannot locate video.


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