Continuing Michael Darlow’s first-hand account of filming Johnny Cash’s 1969 concert at San Quentin prison. This article first appeared in Now Dig This, the longest-running magazine dedicated to the Big Beat. All words copyright Michael Darlow…
Before describing the San Quentin concert and our filming of it, it may be helpful to recall a little about Johnny Cash’s family background and career. He was born in February 1932 in Arkansas, the fourth of the seven children of poor, Southern Baptist, share-cropper farmers who had been ruined in the Depression. His father only managed to continue to feed his family by, in Cash’s words, “roaming the fields with a rifle shooting rabbits, squirrels and deer.” When Johnny was three the family became beneficiaries of President Roosevelt’s New Deal Farming Program and moved to a twenty-acre farm where they grew cotton and other crops. For the first few years after the move it continued to be a hard life of never-ending work and, from the age of four, Johnny joined his family working in the fields, singing along with them as they worked – hymns, work songs and ballads. His childhood was surrounded by music. At home in the evenings he would sit at his mother’s feet and join in singing with the rest of the family as she, a devout member of the Pentecostal Church of God, played gospel songs on her guitar or on the family’s small upright piano. From the age of twelve Johnny began to write songs of his own.
In 1950, after a brief stint working in an autobody factory, Johnny enlisted in the US Air Force and, after training, was posted to Germany as a radio intercept operator. It was in Germany that he bought a $5 guitar and started writing and performing songs with four of his Air Force buddies, playing in the barracks and local bars. In 1954 he left the Air Force and returned home to America, married his sweetheart, Vivian, moved to Tennessee and, while working as a door-to-door salesman, embarked on his musical career. His first success came in 1955 with “Hey Porter”, recorded with his group “Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two”. The following year, 1956, he hit the big time with “Ring Of Fire”.
By the early 1960s Cash was a big star. But the continuous touring – he was regularly playing up to 300 gigs a year – took its toll. He became addicted to alcohol, amphetamines and barbiturates, more than once driving between dates he wrote off his and other people’s cars, he was once found near death in rural Georgia, was arrested for smuggling amphetamines across the Mexican border, and more than once arrested for being drunk and disorderly, spending a number of nights in police cells. As he later wrote in his autobiography: “I just went on and on. I was taking amphetamines by the handful, literally, and barbiturates by the handful too … and I drank. … I was cancelling shows and recording dates, and when I did manage to show up I couldn’t sing because my throat was too dried out from the pills … I was in and out of jails, hospitals, car wrecks. I was a walking vision of death, and that’s exactly how I felt. I was scraping the filthy bottom of the barrel of life.” By 1966 his wife, Vivian, had had enough and divorced him. Johnny had first played a prison concert in Huntsville Prison, Texas in 1957 when the prison authorities were looking for an entertainer to perform at the prison’s annual rodeo and the prisoners had asked for Johnny Cash. From then on Johnny received regular requests to perform in prisons around the country. He played his first concert in San Quentin on New Year’s Day 1958.
Johnny and June had first met in 1956 when he and the Carter Family, who were widely regarded as country music royalty, appeared on the same bill at a concert in Dallas. They immediately fell for each other but June, like Johnny, was already married. By early 1962, when Johnny and The Carter Family began regularly touring the country music circuit together, Johnny and June were deeply in love. Finally, on 22nd February 1968, after both of them had got divorced, Johnny proposed to June on stage in London, Ontario. She said yes and they had married just one week later on 1st March 1968 in the First Methodist Church in Franklin, Kentucky. In the months leading up to their wedding and during the year since then, June had turned Johnny’s life around, brought him back to his Christian faith, got him off drugs and alcohol, and put his career back on track.
After our meeting with Johnny and June in San Diego Joe and I flew back up to San Francisco, did our last couple of days of filming around the prison and, having been joined by our second Granada film crew and our two American crews, on Monday morning, 24th February, began preparing to film the San Quentin concert.
The concert was being held in one of the prison’s grim, hangar-like dining halls with a make-shift stage at one end. About fifteen feet above the floor and about ten feet below the dining hall roof, there was a steel grill on which guards, armed with rifles, were going to patrol with a good view of everything that happened on the floor below them. The hall had been set up for the concert with long rows of chairs, many with continuous rows of tables in front of them – as one of the guards explained, “That way it makes it difficult for the prisoners to stand. And if a man finds it difficult to stand it’s much harder for him to cause trouble.” There were also two aisles down which prisoners would enter the hall to get to their seats, plus a gap of about ten feet between the front row of chairs and the stage. In the middle of the seating, about a third of the way back from the stage, a four-foot-high square rostrum had been erected just large enough to accommodate our master camera mounted on a tripod and the crew who would be operating it. A small space had been left around the platform so that I could climb up and down as needed to direct both what the master camera was doing and the other three cameras which were going to be moving around the hall taking shots of both the audience and the performers on stage. These cameramen could also climb up on to the side of the stage with their cameras to take shots of the musicians and the audience from there. Our plan was that from time to time one of the cameramen would climb up to the metal grill above the hall to take shots looking down into the hall of both what was happening on stage and what was happening in the audience – things that might not be visible from floor level. However, we soon discovered that there was a problem with this plan as the only way to get up or down from the floor to the grill was by going out of the main part of the prison, through a security area and then re-entering the prison on the higher level. So we decided that Joe and one of our camera crews would stay up on the grill throughout the concert and that I would stay downstairs to direct the other three cameras. (In those days there were no small mobile phones so Joe’s and my ability to communicate with each other was going to be limited).
Another more serious problem emerged in the afternoon. The plan was for the team from Columbia Records to park their recording truck immediately outside the hall where the concert was going to take place. But when the Columbia team arrived they were told that their truck wasn’t allowed to enter the main part of the prison. Fortunately, the Columbia team discovered that they had with them a length of twelve core cable long enough to reach all the way from the microphones set up in the hall, out through a window in the hall and over the main prison wall to their recording truck parked outside it. One core of this twelve core cable was connected to our master camera, mounted on the rostrum in the middle of the seating, to transmit the small synch pulse generated by the camera out to the twelve-track recorder in the truck.
We had been told that Johnny, June and the other musicians would arrive at the prison two hours before the concert. So at the appointed time Joe, Ray Goode, his crew and I went out to the prison car park to wait for them. Our plan was to film Johnny and June entering the prison to use as the opening sequence of our film. By this time a San Francisco based photographer, Jim Marshall (later famous as ‘The Godfather of Rock Photography’) had joined us to take photographs of the proceedings. When Johnny arrived we duly filmed him, June and his team walking up to the prison, going through the security routine, having the backs of their hands stamped with the invisible ink, the heavy steel-barred gate being unlocked and opened and them entering the prison.
After Johnny and June had dropped off their bags in a make-shift dressing-room next to the stage, they joined Joe and me in the hall to go through plans for the filming. We showed them where our cameras were going to be and explained that the camera on the rostrum in the middle of the hall was our ‘master’ camera and would concentrate on taking shots of them and the other musicians performing on stage, while the other cameras would be moving around taking shots both of the performers on stage and of the audience. We explained we would be shooting 400 foot rolls of film which meant we would need to stop briefly every ten minutes to reload the camera with a new roll of film. We explained that they would be able to see when we had stopped shooting and that when we restarted I would hold up a small electronic gadget in front of the camera and press a button which would make a tiny light on the top of the gadget flash and emit a small electronic bleep to mark start of each new roll of film.
Dressed in a jumpsuit/overalls provided by the prison, Johnny held a brief soundcheck session on the stage, checking out the acoustics and getting a feel for the place. He explained that he wouldn’t be working to a planned running order but would be playing things largely by ear, depending on how the audience was reacting. During the briefing Jim Marshall continued to take shots of Johnny, June and the rest of us and, when we finished, he said to Johnny, “Let’s do a shot for the Warden and show him what you think of San Quentin.” So Johnny turned and looking straight into the camera, with a look of disgust on his face, raised his middle finger and ‘flipped the bird’ as they call it. That shot later became one of the most famous photographs ever taken of Johnny Cash and the story spread, encouraged by Cash in his autobiography, that it hadn’t been staged before the show but had been taken ‘live’ during the concert itself and that he had been “giving the finger” not to show what he thought of San Quentin, but to one of our cameramen because he was getting between him and his audience. Jim Marshall didn’t correct the story and reveal the truth until more than forty years later, after Cash’s death.
About half an hour before the concert was due to begin the prisoners started to file into the hall and we took up our positions beside our cameras. Once all the prisoners were seated all the performers, except for Johnny Cash himself, came on stage to do the ‘warm-up’, try out the amplification system, test the microphones and enable Columbia’s engineers to check their sound levels and make adjustments. The ‘warm-up’ began with Carl Perkins playing, accompanied by the two other guitarists, Marshall Grant and Bob Wootton, plus WS ‘Fluke’ Holland on drums, singing Perkins’ song Blue Suede Shoes, followed by The Statler Brothers singing Flowers on the Wall. Then, after the engineers had completed their checks and adjustments, one of the Statlers explained to the prisoners that we would be filming during the concert and told them to “Be yourself; feel at home”. Then the Carter Family – mother Maybelle, Helen, Anita and June – came on stage and June addressed the audience. She explained that she had been to San Quentin before “So, if you’ll just sit back and get your hands out of each other’s pockets we’ll sing for you”, and they launched into Tom Paxton’s The Last Thing on My Mind. As the applause died away at the end of the song June, who was dressed in a white dress with frilly white lace around the top and on the skirt and with a large blue silk bow around her waist, rather like a bridesmaid at a white-wedding, addressed the audience again: “Thank you very much…” and, as a prisoner yelled something unintelligible, she continued “You’re very nice and we really appreciate it. Since we’re the only girls in the show I don’t know what kind of show you’re expecting out of us. Sometimes they do girlie-type shows. But I’ve got an announcement to make. This”, she said, wiggling her hips and twitching up her skit a couple of inches, “is as sexy as I’m goin’ to get. This is all I’ve got. Right here. This is the top part”, she said, turning slightly at the waist, “and…” putting her hands demurely on her skirt, “this is the bottom part.” She then talked briefly about the history of country music, the Carter Family and the Carter ‘Scratch-Style’ of guitar playing, which had originally been developed by Maybelle Carter, and involved playing harmony and rhythm on the guitar at the same time. After which the Carter Family played and sang Wildwood Flower, a song particularly associated with “Scratch-Style” guitar.
After the warm-up there was a short pause and then the show-proper began. A Columbia recording engineer signalled that they were recording, I signalled to our crews to start filming and Marshall Grant, Fluke Holland, Carl Perkins and Bob Wootton began playing the backing to Big River. Then Johnny entered through a door at the front of the hall beside the stage, walked along the aisle between the stage and the first row of seats, shaking hands with each of the gang leaders in the front row, and then strode purposefully up the three steps on to the middle of the stage, turned and greeted the audience: “Hello! I’m Johnny Cash!” The audience cheered and clapped and Johnny launched into Big River. After I Still Miss Someone and Wreck of the Old 97 he stopped and, with the audience cheering, asked them, “OK, so what do you want to hear?” Amid the chaos of titles shouted back two titles stood out – Folsom Prison Blues and I Walk The Line. “Alright. I Walk The Line”, said Johnny and off they went, using a far faster arrangement than that heard on the original 1956 Sun single. In the gaps between the verses, while he and his fellow musicians continued to strum the tune, Johnny openly chewed gum. As he was getting towards the end of the song Johnny noticed that one of our cameramen was bending down over his camera below him next to the stage taking a shot looking up at him: “You’d better not bend over that camera like that!” Johnny yelled at him, smiling broadly, “Man, you’re in the wrong place to bend over like that. Don’t you know that?” The prisoners roared with laughter and Johnny continued, smiling broadly – “Get up from behind that camera!”
Just as during the concert in San Diego, it was striking how Johnny seemed instinctively to play up to, and respond to, his audience and its mood. The audience in San Quentin was very different from the audience in San Diego but he still instinctively hit just the right tone to carry his audience along with him. As in San Diego, they seemed to eat from his hand. I think a major part of Johnny’s instinctive rapport with his audiences, and ability to ‘play them’, was that he could identify with them – and they with him. From his own experience he understood what their lives were like and how they felt, while they, in turn, recognised him as being, in many ways, like themselves. Throughout the concert Johnny kept joshing with the audience and the other musicians and referring to San Quentin as “this hell-hole.”
After he had finished singing I Walk The Line Johnny stopped playing and turned to the audience, “As you know, about a year ago we did a concert in Folsom. And a little later I’m gonna sing you a song I wrote about San Quentin.” What? I asked myself. Had Johnny written a song about San Quentin after all? In spite of what he had said in San Diego? Was Johnny warning us and the Columbia engineers to be on the alert for a new song about San Quentin? I didn’t know what to think. After his reaction to my suggestion in San Diego, I hadn’t dared to raise the subject with him during our briefing before the show.
A medley of Lefty Frizzell’s hit The Long Black Veil and Cash’s own Give My Love To Rose – two numbers he’d performed at Folsom – preceded the number the prisoners had shouted for loudest – Folsom Prison Blues. The song had been a big hit for Cash back in 1956, but the ‘live’ version cut at Folsom itself in 1968 had given him an even bigger hit, going all the way to No 1 in the country charts. Apparently, when photographer Jim Marshall asked Johnny why the song’s main character was serving time in California’s Folsom Prison after shooting a man in Reno, Nevada, he told him: “That’s called poetic licence”. Predictably it went down a storm and as the prisoners cheered and hollered, he and the musicians segued straight into Orange Blossom Special. Paraphrasing his own lyrics, at one point Johnny asked: “Aren’t you guys worried about getting your nourishment in this rotten place?”
Johnny wasn’t making any attempt to hide the fact that he was making things up as he went along, depending on the reactions of the audience. It was only years later that I found out that until just before the show started Johnny had been worrying about the show’s running order and fiddling about with it because he was very aware that Columbia were recording it for release as an album. Fortunately, Bob Johnson, the Columbia Records producer who was in charge of the taping, had spotted what he was doing, gone over to him and told him not to worry about the running order and to just concentrate on his performance. They could decide the album’s running order later in the studio, just as they had with the Folsom Prison album.
Johnny called June Carter to come back on stage and she stood beside him smiling. Then they launched into their 1967 hit Jackson together – “We Got married in a fever…” the prisoners cheered louder than ever. As June looked up at Johnny as they sang her love for him shone out, clear for all to see. They followed with John Sebastian’s Darlin’ Companion. Now, as well as flirting with Johnny, June started to flirt with the audience too, wiggling her hips and bending her knees in time to the music and briefly twitching up her skirt a few inches. The audience loved it and her, and you could see that many of the prisoners were really smitten, their eyes wide open, shining with adoration as they looked up at her. A third song, John D Loudermilk’s Break My Mind rounded out Johnny and June’s trio of duets.
Johnny addressed the audience again after singing the folk number I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound: “It takes a lot of imagination sometimes to write a song and really put something into it so that somebody else can understand it and feel it. But we’ve been in several prisons: San Quentin, Folsom Prison and Starkville Mississippi Jail, the El Paso Jail. You wouldn’t believe it, one night I got put in jail in Starkville Mississippi for picking flowers. I was walking down the street, going to get me some cigarettes or something, about two o’clock in the morning after a show, I think I was. Anyway, I reached down and picked a dandelion here and a daisy there. And then a car pulls up! ‘Get the hell in here boy! What y’ere doing?’ ‘I’m just picking flowers!’ 36 dollars and a night in jail just for picking flowers! God damn! You can’t hardly win, can you? God Damn! No telling what you’d do if you pulled an apple or something!” The audience laughed and cheered. They and Johnny were on the same side – against authority! As the cheering died away Johnny continued “I’d like to do this song for all you guys in San Quentin to get back at whoever you want to out there. In my case I want to get back at that man in Starkville Mississippi that still has my thirty-six dollars!” Then Johnny started to sing Starkville City Jail, with its refrain:
They’re bound to get you,
‘Cause they’ve got a curfew
And you go to Starkville City Jail!
Of course, what really happened to Johnny in Starkville Mississippi was a little different from the way he told it in San Quentin. The facts are that at 2 am on a night in May 1965 he had been found picking flowers in someone’s front garden and arrested. He was taken to the local police station, charged with being drunk and disorderly and locked in a cell for the night to sober up. The next morning he was fined $36 and released. Many years later, in 2007, Starkville staged a “Johnny Cash Flower Picking Festival” in honour of Johnny and that night in 1965.
Was that the song he’d said earlier he was going to sing about San Quentin? Surely not. At this point I didn’t know what to think. So I told Ray Goode to just keep filming. Then, after Johnny had finished Starkville City Jail he stopped playing and again started to talk to the audience, who by this time were well and truly in the groove, seeing Johnny as almost one of themselves. I noticed that while he was talking he was also keeping an eye on me and Ray, making sure that we always had the camera running before he started a song. “I was thinking about you guys yesterday. I’ve been here three times before and I think I understand a little about how you feel about some other things… But anyway, I tried to put myself in your place and I believe this is the way I’d feel about San Quentin”. Bob Wootton hit a guitar lick to kick it off and then Johnny sang:
San Quentin, you’ve been living hell to me,
You’ve guarded me since nineteen-sixty-three
I’ve seen ‘em come and go and I’ve seen ‘em die
And long ago I stopped asking why
San Quentin, I hate every inch of you….
Now, the audience broke into heart-felt cheers as he continued –
You’ve cut me and you’ve scarred me through and through
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?
Cries of “No!” from the audience and again a few seconds later, when he started the next verse –
You bend my heart and mind and you warp my soul.
Your stone walls turn my blood a little cold.
San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell….
the cheers grew louder than ever and carried on all the way through to the end of the song…
May your walls fall and may I live to tell.
May all the world forget you ever stood
And may all the world reget you did no good.
San Quentin, I hate every inch of you!
Against the instructions they had been given when they came into the hall, many prisoners were now on their feet, cheering and clapping louder than ever. Some had even climbed on to their chairs and the tables. In the midst of the sustained cheering I spotted Johnny as he turned to the other musicians and asked, “End OK?” As well as asking the performers on stage with him if they thought the performance of San Quentin was OK, Johnny was almost certainly also trying to check whether the Columbia engineers out in the recording truck were happy with just that one take of the song or whether they needed another. Meanwhile the audience had started shouting for more.
“One more time?” asked Johnny. As the crowd cheered, he prepared to sing San Quentin a second time. Then he coughed slightly, as if clearing his throat, and looking out front asked: “If any of the guards are still speaking to me, could I have a glass of water?” A few moments later a uniformed guard came on stage to a chorus of loud boos from the audience, with a metal cup of water – Johnny had made a rude comment earlier in the show about the prison only having metal cups for the prisoners to drink out of. Johnny took the cup from the guard and took a large gulp of water from it. Then, just as he seemed to be about to take another gulp, he stopped and, with much show, held the cup up to his eye and peered into it. After a moment he moved the cup away from his eye and put it down on the stool he had been sitting on and, with a grimace, reached his finger and thumb down into it and, in comic dumb-show, snatched something – an imaginary cockroach or bug – out of the water, crushed it between his finger and thumb, threw it on the floor and stamped on it, while the audience roared with laughter and cheered. Then he moved the cup off the stool, took his guitar and, saying. “San Quentin, just for you,” sang the song again. The only real difference with the second version was that he changed the final line to “San Quentin, you’ve been a living hell to me…”
Of course, it was a great piece of play-acting and went down a storm with the audience, getting them more onto his side than ever. But it also had a serious purpose. San Quentin was going to be the title song of the Columbia Records album. So he needed to make sure that the engineers had at least two good takes of the song so that at least one of them could be used on the album (they ended up using both of them!). By creating a pause between his two performances of the song he had given the engineers time to make whatever adjustments they needed to the sound levels, etc. I also noticed that while he was doing the business with the cup of water he was also keeping an eye on me and Ray to make sure that we had the camera loaded and running when he started the song again. The second time the song got an even bigger reaction from the audience. By the end most of the prisoners were standing and cheering, screaming for more. By now the guards were becoming visibly nervous, fearing trouble. Later Johnny said that at that moment he had felt a great sense of power and that he would only have had to say “Let’s go!” and there would have been a full scale riot. He admitted he was tempted. But instead he slowed the pace and lightened the mood. “Alright. We’ll do it again later on – I’m kinda’ getting to like it myself now. We’ll do it again before we go”. Then he started telling them about a song he had recently written with Bob Dylan, Wanted Man.
So what had made Johnny change his mind in the two days between the concert in San Diego and his arrival in San Quentin? The ‘official’ explanation, the one given by writers on Cash, decrees that after his meeting with Joe Durden-Smith and me in San Diego he had started thinking about San Quentin and the concert more seriously. He had begun to think about San Quentin’s fearsome reputation and how he would feel if he was a prisoner there. He also decided to include in the song some of his own thoughts about the American penal system and how, in prisons like San Quentin, men were shut away for years on end, with little to do and no kind of training to help them turn their lives around or prepare for life outside after release. All this is probably true, Johnny implied as much in what he said to the prisoners before he sang San Quentin to them the first time. But I don’t think that those are the only things that made Johnny change his mind and decide to do as we hand asked him and write a song about San Quentin. I think that June Carter also had a quite a lot to do with it. I remember not only what she whispered in my ear in San Diego, but the determined way in which she said it.
We had been surprised when Johnny announced that he had written a song about San Quentin, but our surprise was as nothing compared to the surprise of the musicians on stage with him when, a little later, after Carl Perkins had sung Restless and was about to leave the stage, Johnny said to him, “I want you to stay out and help us with some songs” and, reaching down into his bag, pulled out a small notebook, which he opened and placed on his music stand. “I’d appreciate a little help on the guitar.” The notebook contained the words of a song, written by a Playboy cartoonist and song writer called Shel Silverstein, which had been sent to him a week earlier by a music publisher. It was called A Boy Named Sue, a comic song about a son’s relationship with his absent father. Johnny had liked it and promised the publisher that he would record it as soon as he got back from San Quentin. But he had not rehearsed it with his group and had originally had no intention of playing it in San Quentin. However, June had seen it and, thinking it was a natural for Johnny, had packed it into his bag along with a lot of other possible material before they set out on their trip to San Diego and San Quentin. Johnny’s decision to perform A Boy Named Sue in San Quentin seems to have been made on the spur of the moment and it took a good thirty seconds after Johnny started singing for Carl Perkins and the other musicians to get fully into the swing of it and start providing an appropriate backing. However, the prisoners loved it, laughing along with Johnny and the song’s lyric all the way. Columbia could now include another hit in their forthcoming album (amazingly, the impromptu performance was released as a single – complete with the words “son of a bitch” famously bleeped out – and became a massive success, reaching No 1 in the US Country listings, No 2 in Pop and even making it to No 4 in the UK).
The last half-hour of the concert included a trio of songs – Peace In the Valley, He Turned The Water Into Wine and The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago, which reflected Johnny’s return to religious faith and a recent visit which June and he had made to Israel. It was interesting watching the prisoners, who included some of the most hardened criminals in America, and seeing the expressions on many of their faces, how moved many of them were, not only by the music, but by the Christian sentiments expressed in the songs’ words.
After a final medley, which included verses from Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk the Line and Ring of Fire and The Rebel – Johnny Yuma, the concert ended and, with the audience standing, clapping and cheering, Johnny, June and the other performers took their bows and left the stage. Then the prisoners were ordered by the guards to line up row by row and leave the hall by the door at the back to return to their cells. The whole event, from the time that the prisoners had started coming into the hall, had lasted for the best part of three hours. Once the last prisoners had left, we packed up our kit, said “Good-bye” to Johnny, June and the other performers and to Saul Holiff, then thanked the guards who had been on duty in the hall and who had looked after us during our filming in the prison. We then collected our copy of the tape recorded by the Columbia Records engineers from the recording truck and bade farewell to our two American cameramen. Then, with feelings of considerable relief, we headed back to our hotel. Little did I know that my real problems were only just about to begin!