60 years ago today, because of an act of compassion by one of the greatest country music singers of all time, the life of another of the all time greats was helped back on track. On January 1, 1959 Johnny Cash performed at San Quentin prison, just outside of San Francisco to an audience of over 3000 prisoners, including murderers, rapists, armed robbers, and a 20 year old serving a 15 year sentence for armed robbery; Merle Haggard.
Merle Haggard was born in 1937 to a pair of dust bowl emigrants who had moved from drought ravaged Oklahoma to Bakersfield, California. They bought a box car from the railroad company and converted it into a house. Merle grew up in extreme poverty, only made worse by the passing of his father when he was just eight years old. Young Merle entered a life of theft, fighting, fraud and other crime. He was in an out of boarding schools and detention centers. When he was fourteen he ran away to Texas, hitchhiking and riding railroads around the state. Over the next few years he would work a variety of odd jobs, and serve several more stints in detention centers and jails. He also would begin playing guitar and singing country music.
The boxcar home Merle Haggard grew up in
Photo Credit: The New York Times
Haggard began playing in the bars at night, working during the day as a farmhand or in the oil fields. He wasn’t making ends meet, so he decided to rob a Bakersfield cafe. That didn’t work, and he was arrested and sent to jail in Bakersfield. After an attempted escape, Haggard was transferred to serve his time in San Quentin prison. While there, he would learn that his wife was pregnant with another man’s baby. He got fired from several prison jobs while also brewing beer and running a gambling racket. After he got caught being drunk in the prison, he was sent to do a week in solitary confinement. While there he had deep conversations through the vents with death row inmate and author Caryl Chessman which made him ponder both his past and future.
Johnny Cash and Prisoners
Johnny Cash began his long relationship with jails and their inhabitants while serving for the United States Air Force in Germany in 1953. It was then that he wrote his famous song, “Folsom Prison Blues.” After the song was released in 1955, Cash began receiving letters from prisoners all over asking him to come play for them. In 1957, he played his first prison concert at the Huntsville State Prison in Texas. Cash himself had never done real time in prison, but had been arrested several times which included a few over night stays.
Photo Credit: Bowie News
Johnny Cash felt the prison system was broken, mixing “kids with killers” and actually increasing the chances that first time offenders would become harder, more violent criminals when they were released. He began using his popularity and power to speak out for the rights of prisoners, calling for reform to the system he felt was broken. At the time, no other celebrities had taken up this cause. Also, it is important to remember that this was a tough and daring stance to take for Cash, who found the majority of his fan base in the conservative American south.
“I don’t see why a man, just because he’s behind bars, should be denied entertainment, I can’t see how the prison system is a good thing. It destroys a man’s soul and often he comes out worse than when he went in.”
Johnny Cash visits San Quentin, January 1, 1959
Johnny Cash was a little nervous when he took the stage. He went to the microphone and asked, “If any of the guards are still speaking to me…..could I have a glass of water?”
He then began strumming his guitar and sang the words to a new song, named after the institution he was playing in, which would later become a hit:
“San Quentin, I hate every inch of you / You’ve cut me and you scarred me through and through / And I’ll walk out a wiser weaker man / Mr. Congressman you can’t understand”
21 year old Merle Haggard was mesmerized. “He had the right attitude,” Haggard said of Cash. “He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards – he did everything the prisoners wanted to do.” Haggard saw a vision of what his life could be. He joined the San Quentin country music band, and began playing for the warden (for which he got paid with cigarettes). The warden would sign off on a early release for Merle Haggard in 1960, after he served only 2.5 years of his 15 year sentence.
From prison to stardom:
Merle Haggard went on to record over 70 albums and 600 songs. His most famous, and controversial would be “Okie From Muskogee”, an anthem for traditional American values over the popular hippy movement of the day. He released 38 number one country singles. He became a member of both the songwriters hall of fame, the country music hall of fame, and in 2010 was honored at the Kennedy Center by President Obama alongside Oprah Winfrey and Paul McCartney. Winfrey grabbed Haggard by the arm and whispered in his ear, “You know……you’ve come the farthest.”
Photo Credit: Cleveland News
Johnny Cash spent his entire career and life fighting for prisoners. He played dozens of shows each year for the people others had given up on without being paid a dime. He recorded two successful live albums at Folsom and San Quentin. He testified in front of Congress, and met with President Nixon. His brother Tommy said, “He identified with the prisoners because many of them had served their sentences and had been rehabilitated in some cases, but were still kept there the rest of their lives. He felt a great empathy with those people.”
Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard
Photo Credit: Country Rebel
60 years ago today, because of his empathy and compassion, Johnny Cash turned Merle Haggard’s life around. The rest of us gained one of the greatest country music singers of all time. It will never be known how many other prisoners who had been kicked to the curb by the rest of the world were saved by Mr. Cash. The wisdom and empathy of Johnny Cash weren’t always popular, but he was resilient and tough enough to be compassionate to those who weren’t always easy to be compassionate to. In this New Year, may we all remember the spirit of Johnny Cash, and try to let a little more of it live in each of us.