All About the Music
A closer look at and companion to the music we play on the show, written by the Prairie Home music librarian, Kathryn Slusher.



The Songs of Johnny Cash
By Kathryn Slusher

October 23, 2003

Last week's show, October 18, featured Garrison and the Shoe band performing a masterpiece of a song written by the late, great, Johnny Cash. The song, of course, was "Folsom Prison Blues."

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"Folsom Prison Blues" was an early hit for Johnny and inspired his legendary performances at Folsom Prison and San Quentin State Prison in 1968. The finest rendition you'll find is on the recordings of these performances. If you listen to the albums closely, you can hear the clanking of steel bars and shuffling of people, as well as a chilling moment as the prisoners cheer in approval at the line "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." Johnny felt empathy for these condemned men, as he had spent some time incarcerated himself. He says in the liner notes for At Folsom Prison, "The culture of a thousand years is shattered with the clanging of the cell door behind you. Life outside behind you immediately becomes unreal. You begin to not care that it exists. All you have with you in the cell is your bare animal instincts….You'd like to say that you are waiting for something, but nothing ever happens. There is nothing to look forward to." Johnny recorded a third prison concert, at Ostraker Prison in 1972, but it was not released as an album in the United States.

Garrison actually performed a version of "Folsom Prison Blues" once before, on February 3, 2001, rewriting it to tell the tale of being stuck in Minnesota for the winter, a fate far eclipsed by being locked up in prison, but ghastly nonetheless. The resulting song was called "Stuck in Minnesota":

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Jack Knife and the Sharps (also known by their real names: Rick Hollister, Scott Christenson, and Jeff Bjork) lived up to their barn-burner reputation on October 6, 2001, as they played the tar out of "Cry Cry Cry."

Listen (After "Number to Call")

"Cry Cry Cry" was the first big hit of Johnny Cash's career, released on Johnny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar, his first album for Sun Records. It reached Billboard's Top Twenty, peaking at # 14 in the autumn of 1956. The album contained Johnny's early hits "So Doggone Lonesome," "I Walk the Line," "The Wreck of the '97," and "Folsom Prison Blues." The liner notes of that album offer some insight into Johnny's songwriting technique. He states: "There are three things you can't get away from. Loneliness, that certain kind of woman, and God." "Cry Cry Cry" certainly deals with that "certain" kind of woman, as Johnny tells her "Soon your sugar daddies will all be gone, you'll wake up some cold day and find you're alone, you'll call for me but I'm gonna tell you bye, bye, bye.When I turn around and walk away, you'll cry, cry, cry."

Garrison introduced Jearlyn Steele to her first Johnny Cash song earlier this year, during the season opener on September 27. The song was another Cash classic-"I Walk the Line." Johnny originally wrote this song as a pledge on eternal love to his first wife, Vivian Liberto, but it soon took on a life as his signature song, reaching #1 on the Billboard country charts in 1956, and staying there for six weeks. It helped the album, Johnny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar, sell over two million copies. Johnny Cash sang "I Walk the Line" nearly every day of his performing career. Over 100 different musical acts have covered the song, and now we can make that over 101, as Jearlyn performed it with Garrison for the very first time:

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In 1958, Johnny parted ways with Sun Records, because Columbia Records had shown interest in him, and he felt that they were more willing to let him record religious-based material on his albums. This turn of events allowed Johnny to save his best stuff for his first album on Columbia, instead of recording it for Sun at his final sessions for them. This resulted in one of Johnny's best albums, and his first for Columbia, The Fabulous Johnny Cash. One of the songs on the album is "I Still Miss Someone," co-written with his nephew Roy Cash Jr. "I Still Miss Someone" covers the topic of loneliness, and also explores the aforementioned element of "that certain kind of woman", with lyrics such as "I wonder if she's sorry/ For leavin' what we'd begun/ There's someone for me somewhere/ And I still miss someone"

Garrison performed "I Still Miss Someone" on the October 16, 1999 show at the Fitzgerald Theater.

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Another legendary album of Johnny Cash's is his 1965 release Orange Blossom Special. The track list reads as if it's a greatest hits compilation and includes three Bob Dylan tunes- "It Ain't Me, Babe," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," and "Mama, You Been On My Mind," a song that even Bob Dylan himself had not yet recorded. Johnny also recorded a song that tells the haunting tale of a mysteriously murdered woman, "The Long Black Veil." Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin composed the song in 1959. The title was inspired by the legend of the mystery woman who visited Rudolf Valentino's grave, always wearing a long black veil. The line "Someone was killed 'neath the town hall light" comes from the story of an old unsolved murder of a Catholic priest in New Jersey, which happened under the lights of town hall. The first line of the chorus, "She walks these hills in a long, black veil," is inspired by the old country song "God Walks These Hills With Me."

Garrison performed "The Long Black Veil" with Kate McKenzie and the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band for our Halloween show on October 31, 1998.

Listen (After "Banks of the Ohio")

Although Johnny is no longer with us, his music lives on. There are many more songs from the Cash catalogue that await performance on A Prairie Home Companion. In fact, Pat Donohue has been working on and rehearsing a version of Johnny's 1958 hit "Big River." Maybe we'll hear it performed someday. The song tells the tale of one man's desperation as he searches in vain all over the country for his unrequited love, who he met by chance in St. Paul, Minnesota. The "Big River" that he refers to is indeed our own Mississippi River, and I would be lying if I said we all didn't get a thrill out of hearing the name of our town mentioned in the lyrics.





Past Articles
  • Winding Down at Wolf Trap (5/27/04)
  • Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew (3/26/04)
  • California, I'm Coming Home (11/26/03)
  • The Songs of Johnny Cash (10/23/03)
  • The Music of Lennon and McCartney (07/01/03)
  • A Tanglewood Lollapalooza (06/01/03)
  • Marvin and Mavis Keep Smilin' (05/01/03)
  • Classical Parodies (04/01/03)
  • Good Cookin': the Songs of Memphis Minnie (03/01/03)


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