Friday, October 17, 2008

Folsom Prison News

Glenn Gould scandalized the classical music community in the 1960s when he acknowledged that the recordings on his LPs were spliced together from multiple takes. Appropriately, Gould compared this process to filmmaking, where scenes are often shot out of order and subsequently edited together to form a coherent sequence. By the 60s, though, the splicing or editing together of multiple takes should have been old news. The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” for instance, was composed of two different takes, played at different tempos and in different keys, spliced together, synced by speeding up one take and slowing down the other. Equally as famous, Art Garfunkel’s vocal on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was painstakingly assembled from many dozens of takes.

Thus it should come as no surprise that one of most significant moments in 60s music—and in the creation of the Johnny Cash mythos as well—never happened. On “Folsom Prison Blues,” the opening track on perhaps the most important recording of Johnny Cash’s career, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (recorded January 18, 1968; released July 1968), Cash sings the lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” which is followed, memorably, by the cheers and approving applause of the inmates. But as Michael Streissguth reveals in his book, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece (2004), the crowd response to Cash’s lyric was spliced in sometime later by Columbia Records producer Bob Johnston. In short, the moment consists of “canned” crowd noise, and is not the savage response of brutal prison inmates. The moment, although a cornerstone of the Johnny-Cash-as-folk-hero myth, is yet another instance of tape splicing, not the reproduction of an authentically recorded live sound.

Since the recording is so historic, however, Columbia has chosen to leave the moment in its edited, post-recorded, form on its new, 40th anniversary 3-disc boxed set, At Folsom Prison Legacy Edition, choosing not to release it sans cheers and applause. However, the revelation included in the brand new release (this past Tuesday) is that instead of the widely-known opening of the album—silence, until Cash intones “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”—the new Legacy edition begins with radio DJ Hugh Cherry commanding the inmate audience to remain quiet until after Cash greets them. Additionally, the new boxed set includes that day’s opening act, the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins, and additional duets (besides “Jackson,” of course) with June Carter.

Do these revelations diminish Cash's achievement? Of course not: the Beatles made tape splicing famous, and their legend remains firm, as does Glenn Gould's. As Gould himself pointed out, by the 1960s, studio recording had become analogous to acting in the cinema.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

lack every time I drive by the prison, which a few times every week.

No. It doesn't taint the masterpiece.