• Kaitlyn Scott

Folsom Prison's Unknown Performance

Updated: May 7, 2020

Hi, thank you for checking out our new blog, Folsom Unveiled. My name is Kaitlyn Scott and I’m Folsom Historical Society’s historian. Each week I will be highlighting a different topic related to Folsom’s history that not everyone knows about by diving deeper into a place, event, person or piece in our collection.

Even those unfamiliar with Johnny Cash are sure to know “Folsom Prison Blues”. As one of Cash’s most famous songs, “Folsom Prison Blues” is heard everywhere and especially in Folsom, CA. Johnny Cash is still very much alive in Folsom, his image can be seen throughout the shops on Sutter Street, his name on a walking trail, bridge and countless articles about his visit to record on January 13th, 1968 and even his less famous first visit in 1966. Our museum even plays Cash’s famous song in our bathroom when you open the door, which admittedly startled me the first time. I cannot count the number of times I have received emails and calls from fans asking if we have anything belonging to Johnny Cash in our museum, only to tell them no and hear their excited tones switch to disappointment.

So, do we really need another blog post dedicated to Cash preforming in Folsom? No. Or at least one not fully dedicated to him. Instead, we should start paying attention to another performer.

Sammy Davis Jr. had many similarities to Johnny Cash. He was a singer, dancer and actor, military veteran and like Cash, struggled with drugs and alcohol. They were contemporaries, with different styles of music but arguably equally talented and well known during their tenure. Davis also performed at Folsom Prison for the inmates. Except he did so in 1961, five years before Cash.

Sammy Davis, Jr. being interviewed by an inmate reporter known as "Traveling Mike".

In 1961, Davis was invited by Warden Robert A. Heinze to perform and Davis, wanting to ensure that prisoners received attention from entertainers, agreed. On November 12th, 1961, Davis performed the same show he did for Queen Elizabeth just 6 days earlier.

Sammy Davis, Jr. mid performance.

After his performance in November, Sammy Davis Jr. began filming for Reprieve; later Convicts Four, which was filmed at Folsom Prison. During filming, Davis continued to perform musical numbers and dance, and he invited musically talented inmates to preform with him. He wasn’t just putting on a show for the inmates or using them as a backdrop, he was engaging with them as equals, which was and still is extraordinary.

Sammy Davis, Jr. performing after inviting two inmates on stage. Inmates are on the right.

Continuing to tell the same stories of Cash’s performance at Folsom Prison is a disservice to Folsom’s musical history. Sammy Davis Jr. was an African American performer in the height of his career in the 1960s, no easy feat during one of America’s most racially charged eras. The January before his performance at Folsom Prison, Davis was supposed to perform with close friend and fellow Rat Pack member, Frank Sinatra at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural party, an honor after the two had tirelessly campaigned for Kennedy’s election. However, Davis was later banned from the White House and dropped from the entertainer list after he married white actress May Britt. This occurrence is just one of many shutouts Davis experienced throughout his career because of his race. His invitation to Folsom then should be something this town is proud of, that in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, Davis was not only welcomed but celebrated. And most of all, it should be remembered.

So maybe the next time a local bridge or trail is named, we can give Sammy Davis Jr’s name a try and give Cash a rest.

Sammy Davis, Jr. performing for inmates at Folsom in November of 1961.