A Masterclass in Participatory Art

I was thinking about you guys yesterday. I’ve been here three times before and I think I understand a little bit about how you feel about some things. It’s none of my business how you feel about some other things – and I don’t give a damn about how you feel about some other things. But anyway I tried to put myself in your place and I believe this is the way that I would feel about San Quentin…

‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash…’

Johnny Cash at San Quentin is one of the most celebrated records made in the 1960s and, like many famous artworks, it seeps into the culture of its time so that it’s easy to think you know it when you don’t. I’ve heard bits, of course – I Walk the Line, Folsom Prison Blues, A Boy Named Sue were on jukeboxes when I was growing up. But yesterday I listened to the whole concert for the first time and was shocked by its crackling energy and danger. Above all, I heard a great artist connecting with an audience so viscerally that the result is a kind of shared creation. Johnny Cash At San Quentin 2 Cash achieves this with very limited means – a couple of guitars, bass and drums and the trademark beat he’d established 15 years before, in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. His other tools are a gravelly bass-baritone and some old songs forged in hardship by working people. But his material is reality.

He accepts that this is prison and that many of the men cheering his bitterest lines will never leave its walls. He doesn’t pretend they share more than this moment and a similar upbringing. His life has worked out better and he accepts the difference of their position, but he wants to speak for them as well as to them. Hence the opening lines of his new song, San Quentin, which follows that introduction:

San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me

And its closing:

San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell.

May your walls fall and may I live to tell.

May all the world forget you ever stood.

And may all the world regret you did no good.

Speaking truth

After songs evoking murder, jealously and the final minutes of a condemned man, here is the real challenge to the system which is the reason why the concert is happening at all. It takes courage to tell an audience of inmates, guards and public officials that prison does no good. The response is so great that Cash has to sing the song again immediately, pausing only to ask ‘Hey, before we do it, if any of the guards are still speaking to me, could I have a glass of water?’. Later he thanks the guards and the governor for allowing the concert to happen, arguing with the audience when they boo. Johnny Cash Concert San Quentin 1969 Cash does not fall into the cheap posturing of taking sides, or glossing over harm done. He faces – and sometimes faces down – both sides of his audience. He offers empathy and some moments of pleasure that might strengthen a prisoner in troubles to come, because those are real and can be offered. He does not pretend to be anyone’s friend or to have solutions for the insoluble.

He draws on ancient wells of American stoicism, humour and cussedness because any more would be a lie. And out of the dialogue between him and his audience he creates an artistic experience that is entirely the result of relationship, of the active participation of everyone there. Acknowledging both his audience’s wounds and his own, accepting the limits of what an artist can do, he did more than most simply by being true to himself and to everyone in the room. It’s a performance, of course – art needs artifice. But it’s a performance of complete integrity because the artist never lies to his audience or to himself.

Mitigating harm

Sadly, it’s hard to imagine a prison service willing to welcome Johnny Cash today, to tolerate his freedom of speech, or to risk his truths. The UK has a long and honourable tradition of arts in prisons but the creative people who dedicate their lives to this field of participatory arts are more often tolerated than welcomed by a system that sees a guitar as a privilege to be earned not a path towards creativity, hope and renewal.

Johnny Cash At San Quentin