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 live 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.