Johnny Cash’s Middle Finger

As he grew older, Johnny Cash came to resent the Nashville country-music establishment, which all but abandoned him and the other aging “country” artists who had defined the genre, in favor of new pop-oriented country artists like Garth Brooks. His late album Unchained (1996) was virtually ignored by the establishment. However, the album did win a Grammy for Best Country Album. Cash and his producers American Recordings posted an advertisement in Billboard Magazine with the above image as a “thank you” to Nashville.

The photo was originally taken in 1969 during his San Quentin prison performance during a rehearsal session. A tireless advocate for the prison reform, Cash began performing concerts at various prisons starting in the late 1960s, leading to two highly successful live albums, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969).

In the latter prison, Cash performed his prison song “San Quentin” (“I hate every inch of you/May you rot and burn in hell/May your walls fall and may I live to tell”), nearly causing a riot. The definitive, iconoclastic image made its way into Cash’s Hollywood biopic, Walk the Line, but the gesture was actually shot during a rehearsal session. Cash was responding to the concert’s official photographer Jim Marshall’s request: “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” 

Cash however remembered differently. In his liner notes for the 2000 reissue of the San Quentin album, Cash said he was frustrated at having the cameraman and the film crew blocking his view of the audience, and when they ignored his request to ‘clear the stage’, he made the gesture.

Marshall noted hyperbolically that the photo was “probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world,” but actually it remained relatively obscure until the Billboard magazine ad in 1998.

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