Johnny Cash (1932-2003) has been one of my favorite musicians for most of my years. His distinctive voice, acoustic guitar melodies, and authentic lyrical stories are what have kept me re-listening to and discovering his music for my entire adult life. Only recently, though, have I given much thought to what is perhaps the most remarkable thing about him as far as I’m concerned. Which is that he sang for prisoners.
He performed at prisons for prisoners several times, with perhaps his most famous performance being at Folsom Prison in 1968 when he recorded the ‘Live at Folsom Prison‘ album. The way he talks to the audience mid-song, I think, is special, as are lyrics of songs like ‘The Wall.’ Though I don’t know Cash’s reasons for performing at Folsom or other prisons, and am sure that he was trying to help his own career, I also get the definite impression that he was trying to do something kind for the prisoners. To make them feel better.
Many people, I think, would sneer or scoff at attempts to make prisoners who may have murdered or raped other people feel better. The term ‘deserves to rot in prison’ comes to mind. So, why might have Cash, in some instances at least, disagreed and thought prisoners deserved kindness?
Maybe his song ‘Man in Black,’ in which he describes why he wears black, answers that question: “I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, but is there because he’s a victim of the time.”
Cash’s actions and words exemplify his understanding of a really hard thing to admit, which I remember adamantly denying. Namely, that people are foremost products of their environment. For good or for bad. Like a fire or a flood (or a rainbow), people don’t create themselves. Similar to non-human natural phenomena, people sometimes do need to be contained or avoided to maintain safety. I admit that.
However, I think that it is important to see that spending the energy to hate a person (like a prisoner who ‘deserves to rot’) is as fruitless as spending energy hating a flood. It does no good. That bad has happened and we have to move forward. Like the energy that could be spent creating a wetland to stop floods, singing to prisoners could create a glow in them that also might keep them from burning the world at their first opportunity. I think Johnny knew that. He also seemed to see that there are prisoners everywhere, few behind bars. So, upon seeing that too, let’s sing however we can.