Johnny Cash “Starkville City Jail”
In the early morning hours of May 11, 1965, Johnny Cash was arrested for public drunkenness after he was found picking flowers on this site following a show at Mississippi State University the previous evening. Cash, who spent the night at the Oktibbeha County Jail, memorialized the incident through the song “Starkville City Jail,” which he most famously performed at another correctional institution; it was captured on his 1969 album Live at San Quentin.
Johnny Cash was known for his rebellious nature, which was expressed through advocacy for the underdog, an independent stance in the music industry, and also, for a time, his personal behavior. “There is that beast there in me, and I got to keep him caged, or he’ll eat me alive,” he told the New York Times in 1994, when the success of his album American Recordings prompted a resurgence of his career. Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, on February 26, 1932, and grew up across the state in the Dyess Colony, a Depression-era federal project for cotton farmers. Obsessed with music as a child, Cash developed his skills while serving in the Air Force in Germany as a radio intercept operator. After his discharge he settled in Memphis, where he created his signature sound together with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant.
Cash began touring widely in 1955 following the success of his first singles for Memphis’ Sun Records, and his reputation was solidified with #1 hits including “I Walk the Line,” “Guess Things Happen That Way,” and “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” A regular visitor to Mississippi, he played the prestigious Jimmie Rodgers Festival in both 1957 and 1959. His hit-making streak continued through 1965, when his arrest following his show at Mississippi State University received national attention; one Associated Press headline referenced his cover of a song by his childhood hero Jimmie Rodgers—“Johnny Cash is in the jailhouse now.” Cash was able to post bond, and after appearing in court performed the following day on the campus of the University of Mississippi.
Cash recorded many songs about incarceration, including “Folsom Prison Blues,” inspired by the film Walls of Folsom Prison and the loneliness he felt during his military service in Germany; “In the Jailhouse Now;” “I Got Stripes;” “Austin Prison;” “San Quentin;” “Starkville City Jail;” and “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang,” a duet with Waylon Jennings that warns, “You don’t go writing hot checks down in Mississippi.” Cash also advocated for prisoners’ rights, and in his autobiographical “Man In Black” he sang, “I wear the black for the poor and beaten down/Living on the hopeless, hungry side of town/I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime/But is there because he’s a victim of the times.” Cash often performed at prisons, including the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in July of 1974; proceeds from ticket sales to civilians went to Parchman’s Prisoner Welfare Fund. An attendee at a performance at San Quentin State Prison in California in the late 1950s was inmate Merle Haggard, who later recalled that Cash’s performance inspired him to pursue music and become a better man. In 1972 Cash testified before Congress about prison reform, a topic he discussed during meetings with multiple presidents.
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