It was New Year’s Day 1958. The place was one where you would least expect a celebration, the oldest prison in California, San Quentin. For the previous 42 years, the Musicians Union in San Francisco had provided entertainment for the prisoners on New Year’s Day. This was the 43rd annual New Year’s Day show.
Prior to the show, the prisoners began a letter-writing campaign to the performer they wanted to see most. They had heard that the artist would be in the area at the time. They considered this artist one of their own based on the lyrics of a hit song he had recorded in 1955 and requested that he perform the song at the New Year’s Day event. The song was Folsom Prison Blues. Their letters were addressed to Johnny Cash.
Playing prisons was not new to Johnny Cash. He began receiving letters from inmates all over the United States immediately following the release of Folsom Prison Blues and had previously performed at prisons. Johnny Cash was winding down a string of personal appearances in late 1957. The last paying show on this tour was on New Year’s Eve in Oakland, California. Johnny Cash agreed to play at San Quentin for free.
Most entertainers would have had at least a slight reservation at the thought of playing in front of 4,000 hardened criminals, some of which were scheduled to die for their crimes, but not Johnny Cash. When Johnny Cash walked onto the stage, the prisoners cheered. Their applause died down as Johnny Cash tried to speak. He had almost completely lost his voice from his previous performances.
In the audience was a 20-year-old prisoner number A45200. This prisoner had spent much of his youth in juvenile detention centers for various crimes and was serving a three-year sentence in San Quentin for attempted robbery. Although he had never met Johnny Cash, the prisoner was concerned for the singer’s safety. If he was unable to perform as expected, the prisoner knew the event could easily turn into a riot.
Johnny Cash was struggling to sing. In between songs, Johnny Cash asked one of the prison guards for a glass of water. The guard stood like a statue; his only movement from exuberantly chewing gum. With the whole captive audience looking on, including prisoner number A45200, Johnny Cash mimicked the guard’s gum chewing. This single act, which none of the prisoners would have attempted for fear of reprisals, won over the audience. Prisoner number A45200 was mesmerized by the power Johnny Cash had over the crowd.
The prisoners applauded after each song. When he played Folsom Prison Blues, according to news reports, the prisoners “practically tore down the place applauding.” Johnny Cash said it was one of the most appreciative audiences he had ever had, even if it was a captive audience. Another newspaper reporter wrote the fitting headline “Johnny Steals The Show At San Quentin.”
Johnny Cash’s New Year’s Eve performance at San Quentin changed the direction of prisoner number A45200’s life. The prisoner saw how enthralled the other audience members were at Johnny Cash’s performance. The prisoner knew how to play guitar but had not seriously considered a career in music until that performance. He spent the remainder of his prison term, including his 21st birthday, writing songs. In 1960, prisoner number A45200 was released from prison. In 1963, he had his first hit single. Two more followed in 1964, and in 1966, he scored his first number one hit song. In his decades-long career, the prisoner topped the country singles chart 38 times.
Had Johnny Cash not played the San Quentin New Year’s Day show, the world might never have heard of prisoner number A45200. He once wrote that he turned 21 in prison, and no one could steer him right. Prisoner number A45200, who was steered right by Johnny Cash, was Merle Haggard.