San Quentin, May You Rot in Hell

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Johnny Cash gives the finger while performing a concert at San Quentin State Prison. Photo by Jim Marshall.

In February 1969, prisoners in San Quentin State Prison cheered while treated to a live concert by the man in black. Johnny Cash, with his characteristic bravado, brazenly declared, “San Quentin, may you rot in Hell.” One of the prisoners recalled of the performance: “He had the right attitude. He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards—he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.” The performance was memorialized by a U.K. film crew and became a feature-length documentary. Cash was not new to concerts behind bars; he had been playing in prisons for years, most famously at Folsom Prison. However, this time, Cash performed songs specifically written for prisoners, including the title track “San Quentin” and “Wanted Man,” co-written by Bob Dylan. When Cash took the stage, his audience consisted of men designated as dangerous criminals. Most were poor and White, with many serving life sentences or awaiting execution. San Quentin has not surrendered its infamous reputation, and it remains the “most populous antechamber in the U.S.”

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