Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison
Words by: Ben Richardson

The crowd outside the Roxie Theater was teeming Wednesday night, awaiting the kick-off of the Noise Pop Film Festival and the presentation of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, a documentary by director Bestor Cram. A line of graying hipsters, professionals in Converse, and eager Cash fans stretched down 16th street, jostling with confused theater patrons trying to winnow their way into Bloods and Crips, the Roxy’s other movie involving musicians and jail.

Seating was at a premium inside, but everybody was comfortably ensconced by the time the event began in earnest with a short video from last year’s Noise Pop, courtesy of SOMA-based rock-archivists Wolfgang’s Vault. Onscreen, San Diego band Delta Spirit launched into “People C’mon,” a strident anthem that showcased the yowling talents of vocalist Matt Vasquez and whetted the audience’s appetite for the Cash-on-the-mic delicacies that were soon to follow.

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, as its title implies, concerns itself with the Man in Black’s hyper-famous 1968 concert. Made into a cultural landmark by the impeccable live recording that issued from it, Cash’s watershed gig is well-worn territory for documentarians and cultural historians, stamped as it is in every half-serious music-lovers brain. Even those who have never heard the album itself are likely to know the story, whether through the efforts of a pre-MC Hobo Joaquin Phoenix, or through countless other avenues.

It is Cram’s task, then, to skirt this two-ton gorilla of familiarity, a task that he carries off with significant aplomb. Together with writer Michael Streissguth, the director picks at the edges of the Folsom concert story, constellating an impressive array of side-narrative and ephemera around the lodestar of the music itself.  Drawing on extensive interviews with two of Cash’s children, his bandmates in the Tennessee Three, and various other supporting characters, the film fleshes out the fascinating details of a well-known but incompletely understood piece of history.

The film is at its most powerful during interviews with Millard Dedmon, a former Folsom inmate who was behind bars at the time of Cash’s seminal performance. In addition to providing an invaluable first-hand account of the concert, Dedmon’s narrative is a heart-rending tale of crime and punishment, atonement and reformation. Sentenced to life without parole, Dedmon endured decades of incarceration, and it is difficult to reconcile the avuncular African-American old-timer that appears on-screen with his rueful tales of late-sixties criminality.

Tragedy is likewise abundant in the little-known story of Glen Sherley, another Folsom inmate. Serving five-to-life for armed robbery, his song “Greystone Chapel” found its way into Cash’s hands the night before the concert. Taken with the plight of the prisoner and the power of his music, Cash and his band learned the tune overnight, performing it as the final song in the set in front of a stunned Sherley, who was seated in the front row. Cash continued to champion Sherley’s career after his eventual release, and the film depicts this obscure chapter in Cash’s life, and its sad conclusion, with captivating verve.

As might be expected, the doc is well-stocked with archival footage and other visual touches. Shots of modern-day Folsom prison proved fascinating, and materials contemporary to the concert provided the necessary context. Less inspired were short animated interpretations of some of the songs Cash performed during the concert. While their was certainly creativity and deft animatory technique on display, distilling the intensely human narratives in Cash’s lyrics into cartoons seemed reductive, and served as an unwelcome interruption to the more interesting information the film had to offer.

The screening was followed by a brief Q+A with legendary rock photographer Jim Marshall, a San Francisco resident. The questions were mostly perfunctory, but did elicit one good anecdote, in which Jim Marshall recounted a conversation he had with Cash: “The lyrics say you shot a man in Reno,” quipped Marshall. “Why are you doing time in California?” “That’s called poetic license,” Cash rejoined. Too right.