Every picture tells a story and here is the story behind one of the most iconic rebel images of all, photographer Jim Marshall’s classic shot of Johnny Cash flippin’ the bird during his famous concert at San Quentin State Prison:
Some of Marshall’s most arresting photographs of Cash were taken at two California prisons, Folsom (1968) and San Quentin (1969). These were not Cash’s first performances for prison inmates—indeed, his song “Folsom Prison Blues” had been released more than a decade earlier, in 1955, as a 45 and 78 by Sun Records. But the trip to Folsom would be recorded for a live album, and Jim Marshall was invited along by Cash’s label, Columbia, to document the event.
On the SFAE website, Jim Marshall recalls the day, January 13, 1968, when Cash and his band, the Tennessee Three, with the great Carl Perkins on guitar, entered the prison (see the pensive portrait of Cash, above). “The granite walls in Folsom are about eight feet thick, and we had just gotten off the bus and gone through one giant gate into a holding area. Then we went through a second gate, and, when it clanked shut, John said, ‘Jim, there’s a feeling of permanence in that sound.’ After that, I started wondering when we were going to get out of there.”
The success of “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison,” with a Marshall close-up of Cash on its cover, sweat dripping down his face from the bottom of his sideburns, sent Cash to San Quentin a year later for another live album. That recording, which made it to No. 1 on both the country and pop charts in the U.S., is famous for its black-and-blue cover, with Cash’s head silhouetted from behind by a harsh spotlight.
The most famous image from the day, though, is unquestionably the candid shot of Cash taken during a rehearsal before the show. Again from the SFAE website, Marshall recalls the origins of what he believed was “probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world. There was a TV crew behind me and John was on the side of the stage. I said ‘John, let’s do a shot for the warden.’” Apparently, that’s all the prompting Cash needed to look straight into Marshall’s lens and flip him the bird.
Below, Johny Cash and the Tennessee Three perform “San Quentin” at California’s San Quentin State Prison in 1969. What an amazing moment.