Thursday, August 2, 2007

No. 88: At Folsom Prison

Band: Johnny Cash
Album: At Folsom Prison
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Filled with songs of vigilante justice and law-breaking, Cash's Folsom performance is as dark as his famous black getup.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Cash, stylistically, is much more important than no. 88.
Best song: There are few opening album lines more familiar than Cash simply saying "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" as the familiar guitar melody of "Folsom Prison Blues" starts up. Also, "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."
Worst song: Despite its fame, I'm not in love with "The Long Black Veil."
Is it awesome?: Unequivocally, yes.

I mentioned that I have a general bias against country music ("twang," I believe I called it), but Johnny Cash basically transcends genre. When he died, MTV asked a ton of artists to pay him some tribute. Snoop Dogg said "he was the original gangsta."

"At Folsom Prison" is just that, Cash bein' a g. Possibly because he's playing to a prison or possibly because he's an irrefutable badass, most of the songs he plays are about death, breaking the law and prison.

The set opens with probably the best outlaw song ever: "Folsom Prison Blues." One of the most famous lines in music, of course, is the highlight of the song. "I shot in a man in Reno, just to watch him die" is iconic and among the most quoted in country music. Oddly, the whoops of the prisoners was piped in in post-production, because the prisoners mostly kept quiet during the recording, as to not cause a stir with the guards.

Recorded in 1968, some of Cash's most famous tracks are absent from the tracklist. Still, he laments prison life in such a gangsta way, it's hard not to root for the bad guy.

"Cocaine Blues," for example, does not feature a plot one wants to emulate. The main character snorts some cocaine and shoots his wife, basically. "I can't forget the day I shot that bad bitch down" is the operative line in the song. But, it's so hard, it's tough to not enjoy it.

Johnny Cash, original gangsta.


Something to consider for all the boomers (yes, I'm partly speaking to my father here)... Johnny Cash's motives in his songs are considerably less noble than most of the death in rap music. Most rappers don't kill their wives (or if they do, they do so because of cheating) in their songs. Most rappers kill other guys in what is, on some level, justifiable to them (basically, elevations of fights).

I've not heard a lot of rap songs where the protagonist shoots someone "just to watch him die."

Johnny Cash does that. Johnny Cash kills his wife on cocaine on a record. He gets sent to death because he'd rather die than admit he slept with his best friend's wife.

That's not vigilante justice. That's just wrong.

So... Violence in music ain't new. And Johnny Cash's version of violence is worse than most of the stuff done by Snoop Dogg. He's calm about it. It's very explanatory; I shot a guy and that's it. I did it. Like the existential main character in "L'Estranger," Cash isn't exercised about it.

That's scary. And, one some level, it's pretty wrong.

So, what's the reason to destroy rap music for so many boomers? Could it possibly have something to do with the race of the people making the music?

Just a thought.


SoulBoogieAlex said...

Sorry, can't help but comment again. I think you're missing the moral underpinnings of his songs. Yes shooting your wife is obviously wrong. But Cash's protagonists are filled with guilt, haunted by their acts of murder and sin. To me that's the big difference between him and the glorification the likes of Snoop Dogg and 50 Cents like to indulge themselves in.

padraig said...

alex - going by your site you are undoubtedly an expert on, in addition to r&b/soul, early rnr and its' influences. so I wouldn't challenge your assertions about Johnny Cash I even if I disagreed with them, which I don't. on the other hand, bluntly, you obviously have no idea what you're talking about when it comes to hip hop. first, gangsta rap is but one part of a much larger whole - you're ignoring conscious rappers from KRS-One to The Coup and beyond, not to mention the infinite wealth of excellent artists who have nothing to do with gangsta-ism; Masta Ace, Pharoahe Monch, Freestyle Fellowship, etc. second, rap has a long and honored tradition of storytelling, just like outlaw country. calling it all glorification is wrong and ignorant. third, and most directly to your point, even most gangsta rappers aren't 100% glorification and the majority aren't real gangstas, rather personas they've created as artists. listen to straight outta compton, any of ice cube's albums from the early 90s, Notorious BIG's 1st LP etc. and tell me that those records don't have the same depth as Johnny Cash.

no offense and all respect but you sound like a cranky old dude who doesn't get that new-fangled hip hop the kids are listening to these days.

R.J. said...

Well, you know, rap music is done by negroes and young people, not those introspective white folks like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.

SoulBoogieAlex said...

I'm not nearly as old as all the music I review ;-) I grew up a big fan of Tribe Called Quest, Gangstar and De La Soul. I still very much appreciate what artists like the Coup, Jurassic 5 or The Roots bring to the fold. I just don't agree with the assessment that Johnny Cash's lyrics are remotely comparable to the glorification we see happening in Gangsta rap. Maybe Snoop and 50 Cent simply like to shock, although I doubt that's just it, but their songwriting is simply of a different breed than Cash's moral tales.