Fifty years ago, Johnny Cash performed at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, Calif. The January 1968 concert and live album it produced, At Folsom Prison, helped revitalize Cash’s career, inspiring him to testify for prison reform and cementing his reputation as a voice for the downtrodden. Earlier this week, the Mexican norteño band Los Tigres del Norte followed in Cash’s footsteps and became the first major Latin act to play at Folsom since the rock and roll star’s historic concert five decades ago.
The spirit of Johnny Cash is everywhere at the prison-yard gig. Los Tigres and crew walk through the same massive security gates that Cash and his musicians did on that cloudy, winter morning. The musicians’ green room is in the prison’s Greystone Chapel — the same chapel immortalized in song on Cash’s 1968 album. But somethings have changed with time. When Cash played his prison show in ‘68, the inmate population at Folsom was most white. Today, it’s mostly black and Latino.
The magic number of 50 hangs in the air for Los Tigres. It’s been 50 years since Cash’s performance and 50 years since the Mexican band played its first gig in the United States, which, ironically, was also at a prison.
“When we came to this country, the first performance that we did was in a prison in Soledad, California,” Jorge Hernández, the band’s vocalist and accordionist, says. “It reminds us it’s a blessing that we can be here at Folsom playing and celebrating our coming to this country, performing in a prison, but also performing now at Folsom Prison.”
Los Tigres del Norte have sold over 30 million albums and the band’s fans span generations of Mexicans. The band’s songs like “La Jaula de Oro,” a lament about struggling to protect one’s undocumented family in the United States, set immigrants’ stories to music. Two years ago, Los Tigres submitted a request to play at Folsom. A few months ago, the band finally got the blessing of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to have a performance at the prison.
“When Johnny Cash first came in, it probably wasn’t real popular with the staff or the warden at the time,” Ralph Diaz, the Department’s Undersecretary of Operations, says. “But in the end, he wanted to let the population know, ‘There is a voice out there for you. I’m that voice.’”
Diaz, on the other hand, is most definitely a Los Tigres fan. “I grew up listening to Los Tigres at grandma’s kitchen table to the time I got my own stereo,” he says.
Manuel Mena is a Los Tigres fan, too. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Mena says Los Tigres inspired him to start his own band. One night after a show, Mena had an altercation with a fan who threatened him. Mena killed the man. That landed him in Folsom for 36 years to life.
“We are the forgotten of society,” Mena says in Spanish. “And to have the privilege of experiencing something like this? Well, it means we haven’t been completely forgotten. It means there’s someone who remembers us, someone who gives us the strength to keep going, the strength to keep moving forward.”
About 800 denim-clad men stand in the main prison yard under wispy clouds and a bright blue sky for the performance, as well as the watchful eyes of correctional officers on the ground and in five gun towers surrounding the yard. Many of the men sing along. Others shout out requests. A few more dance alone, seemingly lost in a moment of nostalgia.
Before it became famous by way of Cash’s performance, “Greystone Chapel” was written by Glen Sherley, a Folsom inmate serving time for armed robbery. In the same tradition, Los Tigres del Norte invite Mena to play accordion on their norteño rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Univision is recording the performance for a documentary. It’s being produced by Grammy- and Oscar-winning musician Gustavo Santaolalla, who echoes Cash’s belief in the power of music to give inmates a voice.
“It’s a way actually of not only entertaining themselves, but also to open their souls, and to open their minds to the possibility of a better world,” Santaolalla says.
After the show, band member Luis Hernández stands on the steps of the chapel, reflecting on what just happened.
“It was just so emotional to see these people here singing our songs and transporting themselves back to maybe how their lives could be, or maybe the mistakes they made,” he says. “It’s impressive, when you come here and sing in front of these people, how you can bring them happiness, and how you can bring them their life back.”