Thursday is the anniversary of one of the greatest live recordings in the popular music canon. On January 13, 1968, Johnny Cash took his band, his father, and a couple of opening acts to California’s Folsom State Prison to record two shows. They had rehearsed for two solid days in a Sacramento motel, where–astoundingly–they were visited by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who offered his encouragement and good wishes.
Few people realize that Carl Perkins added his wicked guitar licks to the standard sound of the Tennessee Three backing Cash that day. Even fewer know that the both the morning and afternoon shows actually began with Perkins performing his own songs.
Six minutes before the Man in Black walked out for the first show with his trademark opening “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” and the definitive take on “Folsom Prison Blues,” Perkins got the prisoners into gear with a rocking “Blue Suede Shoes.” The Statler Brothers then took one song (“This Ole House”) before the emcee, radio newsman Hugh Cherry, introduced Cash.
The resulting album—edited down from the two shows (though mostly from the first)—is a respected piece of art in its own right, but as this post makes clear, it is not the full artistic creation– rock concert– that the prisoners heard that day. If this intrigues you, check out the 2008 2 CD / 1 DVD Legacy Edition of At Folsom Prison, which contains both shows in full. Unfortunately, the DVD doesn’t contain much original footage, but it fills in the backstory quite well.
For a video of Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” check out this YouTube video (taken from Johnny Cash’s 1971 TV show, where everybody looks a little overdressed, certainly not in prison-concert wear).
For a music link, check out music historian John Vanek’s blog post. Thanks again, John!
Today marks the 43rd anniversary of the first adult human-to-human heart transplant in the United States, at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California, under the direction of Dr. Norman Shumway. The unidentified 54-year-old patient, who received the heart of a 43-year-old man, died 15 days later of multiple systemic complications. The very first human-to-human heart transplant operation had been performed just a few weeks earlier, in South Africa, by Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who had consequently become an international celebrity. The operations launched a virtual “space race” in risky heart operations, with doctors on several continents one-upping each other.
The frenzy over (and frequency of) heart transplants only intensified during the period 1968-70, before backing off for some years. In this early, “heroic” period, however, the focus on the heart reflected larger cultural preoccupations with the human body– with knowing about it, visualizing it, exposing it, really seeing it in new and sometimes shocking ways.
One of the most vivid reflections of this new obsession with the body and its “mysteries” was to be found in the startling images made by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson (born 1922). His series of photographs of living human fetuses, published in 1965 in LIFE magazine, had an extraordinary–and probably still unmeasured–impact on public consciousness about reproduction and contraception. LIFE sold millions of copies of its issue with the Nilsson photos, and may have hoped to have a similar effect with this issue, from January 19, 1968, with a ten-page spread of still amazing photos of the inside of a beating human heart. Eerily lit and enlarged to fit on LIFE-sized pages, the photos are stunningly reminiscent of the 1966 science-fiction film Fantastic Voyage, about a nano-journey by scientists through the human body. There is, in this January 1968 issue, barely a glimmer of the horrors of the year to come: not a single mention about the war, or civil rights, and only a few bouyant pieces about the emerging presidential race. There’s an article about the boys in the cast of Oliver!, then in production, and critic Richard Schickel’s review (lukewarm) of The Graduate.
Trumping all the news and reviews are those blood-red photos of a beating heart. It’s hard to overstate the extent to which Nilsson’s photographs changed the way we saw the world. In the article that accompanies the photos, LIFE’s staff writer Loudon Wainwright, Jr. (the singer/songwriter’s father) writes: ”The heart. Before, when it wore out, that was the end. Death. But just in the past month, a new operation–taking a healthy heart from a newly dead person and planting it in a person whose heart was failing–has stirred the world. It is a wondrous beginning, but in that beginning failure is almost certain.”
‚ÄúAn Introduction to Indian Music‚Äù by Ravi Shankar 
1968 was unquestionably a crucial year in the spread of Indian classical music to the West. In February, George Harrison‚Äîwho had experimented with Indian instruments and composition techniques as early as 1965 with “Norwegian Wood”‚Äîand the rest of The Beatles traveled to India to study under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Their presence in India shone the spotlight directly on Indian culture and music. It is no coincidence that Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Brij Bhusan Kabra‚Äôs LP Call of the Valley, a ‚Äúconcept album‚Äù about a shepherd from Kashmir, began to infiltrate markets worldwide in ‚Äò68, eventually attaining platinum status.
The same year, sitar master Ravi Shankar, whose music David Crosby had introduced to Harrison three years earlier, took advantage of rising Western interest in all things Indian by releasing an album, The Sounds of India, targeted at speakers of English. As the opening track makes plain, Shankar interspersed explanations of Indian classical music to provide basic context to otherwise lost Western listeners. The rest of the album contains more playing and less talking, but still introduces the unique rhythms and instruments effectively. Highly recommended, whether you are obsessed with 1968 or not.
As you probably know–those of you, that is, who have not been sleeping under a rock recently–there’s a new version of John Wayne’s Oscar-winning True Grit opening this week, here in 2010. It’s directed by the Cohen Brothers, and stars Jeff Bridges as eye-patched Rooster Cogburn, and, like the 1969 original, is based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis.
In spite of my political leanings, I am an unrepentant John Wayne fan, and although True Grit is far from his greatest movie, or even the greatest “late-Wayne” movie (The Shootist takes that honor), it’s still enjoyable, especially when the (bad) child-actress protagonist is off-screen. True Grit was a real western, and so were most (not all, unfortunately) of Wayne’s last movies; he died in 1979.
But in 1968, Wayne was not fighting any Far West personal vendettas; he was fighting the Commies in Vietnam. John Wayne felt so strongly about filming the story of “The Green Berets” (based on a popular, violent 1965 book by Robin Moore, and Barry Sadler’s pop anthem of the same name, a huge hit from 1966) that he chose to produce, direct, and star in his version. Wayne had been fuming for years about the leftward tilt of American opinion about the Vietnam War, and was determined to throw his enormous Hollywood resources into telling “the other side” of the story–the one about vicious, sub-human Vietcong, about the domino effect, about the need for America to be in Vietnam to save the world.
The movie (available for Instant Viewing on Netflix, by the way) begins delivering these messages in the first few minutes. Skeptical newspaper reporter, played by the huge TV star (”The Fugitive”) David Janssen, along with dozens of other newsfolks and visitors, are taking a tour of the Special Forces (i.e., Greet Berets) base in Georgia. At a demonstration of Beret capabilities, Janssen and others ask tough questions: ”Why is the United States waging this ruthless war?” and “Do you mean you do what you’re told to do, without any personal feelings or opinions?” and “Terrible things happen in war; that doesn’t mean the South Vietnamese need us, or even want us.” ”How do you know we should be fighting for this present government? They’ve had no free elections, no constitution. . . . There are a lot of people believe that this is simply a war between the Vietnamese people; it’s their war, let them handle it.” And the answer from the Green Berets officer: “What’s involved here is Communist domination of the world.”
Janssen tells the men’s colonel: ”Your brainwashed sergeant didn’t sell me . . . on the idea that we should be involved in Southeast Asia.” Predictably, the journalist ends up going with Wayne’s bunch to Vietnam, and ends up seeing the light. The truth, as revealed in the rest of the movie (filmed in Georgia), is about the animal-like viciousness of the Vietcong, their hideous traps and tortures and atrocities. South Vietnamese people (played by a boatload of mixed-Asian actors, none of them actually Vietnamese) are innocent and timid and immensely grateful for the chocolate and health care provided by the Americans. There’s a cute orphan-mascot subplot. There are many scenes with helicopters (the U.S. military gave an enormous amount of free assistance to Wayne and his “Batjac” film company.) There are borrowings from hardened-commando movies (The Dirty Dozen, released a year earlier), hopeless assault movies, clever caper movies, even a little musical number thrown in (a sexy Vietnamese singer in a nightclub). There’s a little comedy (Jim Hutton as a wacky misfit, doomed to die a hideous death by the end), some gruesome struggles (with some odd neon-red blood), a bit of the Tet Offensive, and the chance to see two Asian-American actors better known for TV roles–Star Trek’s George Takei and Barney Miller’s Jack Soo (both Japanese) on the big screen.
For Vietnam-movie “completists,” The Green Berets is a must-see, because of its stridently conservative, “patriotic” point of view, and because of the all-consuming involvement of John Wayne (though he gives an oddly detached, if self-directed, walkthrough of a performance). It’s also useful for historians of the 1960s because it was released on the 4th of July, 1968–just a few weeks before the two presidential nominating conventions, and dead-center in the single worst year for American casualties in the Vietnam War, the year that public opinion on the homefront was turning decisively away from support for the war.
The editors and publishers of Ramparts–one of the most important voices of the American left in the 1960s–spent much of the first months of 1968 preparing for the Big Event of the summer, namely the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in late August. Tom Hayden, who would later stand trial as part of the “Chicago Eight” (later, Seven) for conspiracy to incite violence at the Convention, wrote several essays on the antiwar movement for Ramparts leading up to the August debacle, in one of which he wrote: “The peace movement should catch up with the worldwide feeling that the Vietcong are the heroes of this war.”
Ramparts fielded a impressive lineup of reporters and contributors for its coverage of the convention, including Hayden, Adam Hochschild, Pete Hamill, Sidney Schanberg, and Hunter S. Thompson. Later, Thompson wrote about his reactions to the bloody conflicts on the streets of Chicago: ”I went from a state of Cold Shock on Monday, to Fear on Tuesday, then Rage, and finally hysteria, which lasted for nearly a month.”
The Hayden quote (from the July 1968 issue of Ramparts) comes from the wonderful history of the magazine by Peter Richardson, A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (New York: The New Press, 2009). Richardson devotes almost an entire chapter to the Chicago story, which begins:
“If 1968 was the year that America had a nervous breakdown, Ramparts was its most reliable fever chart. The national crisis had complex and interlocking causes, including policy failures, mounting frustrations, social ruptures, and political violence. Most of these developments were reflected–and in some cases, aggravated–by Ramparts and its coverage that years. As the nation plunged into crisis, so did the magazine. Ramparts began 1968 in the coils of conspiracy theories, became embroiled in the nation’s most controversial and violent domestic conflicts, and finished the year in fractious, chaotic collapse.”
The September issue–pictured here–contains the magazine’s reporting on the convention, and is necessarily somewhat anti-climactic. By the time the magazine hit the streets, the tear-gas had long dissipated, the wreckage had been cleared from Grant Park, the damage to the Democrats’ reputations had been done–and Hubert Humphrey’s promises had ended up in the trash, literally and figuratively.