Setting the Captives Free
One morning I woke up and was plunged into psychological shock. I had forgotten I was free.
— Jack Henry Abbott – American Criminal and Writer
Recently while listening to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, I began to wonder whatever happened to Glen Sherley. Who was Glen Sherley you might ask? Well the great man himself evokes Sherley’s name in that classic recording from 1968. He was an inmate at Folsom and present at that momentous event in the history of country music. As fate would have it, Sherley wrote songs and played guitar while imprisoned at that infamous California penal institution. One song in particular that Sherley wrote ended up in Cash’s hands at some point before the concert. There is debate whether Cash was given the song a year before the concert or the night before. Regardless of the time line, the song wasn’t perfected or practiced until the night before the actual performance.
Greystone Chapel would become Sherley’s calling card out of prison. The song he wrote and Cash performed ended up on one of the best country albums of all time. But Cash’s involvement with Sherley in particular and advocacy for the prison reform movement in general raises a lot of provocative questions even after so many years later. Those questions involve the nature and power of celebrity and man’s ability or lack thereof to redeem himself.
The chapter of Cash’s life dealing with the Folsom prison concert and his involvement with Sherley is documented brilliantly in Michael Streissguth’s 2004 book Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison: The Making Of A Masterpiece. There has always been a common misconception that Johnny Cash himself served hard time in prison. But other than a few nights in a drunk tank (one of those occasions described humorously in the song Starkville City Jail), Cash never had to endure the ravages of a maximum security prison. But a lot of prisoners like Sherley bought into the myth that Cash was one of them. After all, this was a man who wrote I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But even if he wasn’t one of them, he certainly cared about them and their plight. Though Streissguth in his book doesn’t expressly state it, you get the feeling that as great an album as Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison is, it would somehow be a lesser recording without Sherley’s involvement no matter how limited it was. Though Cash would sing a good number of prison songs including the quintessential one (Folsom Prison Blues), you still needed a song of hope and faith to soften the rough edges and dreary existence of prison confinement. Greystone Chapel fits the bill perfectly. Though the body may be confined Sherley writes, a man’s spirit can be set free by God’s love.
Eventually Sherley wanted his body free and because of Cash’s involvement contacts were made, strings were pulled and freedom was attained in 1971. He soon landed a job at Cash’s publishing house and married a secretary there. He would write and record songs as well as tour with the Cash road show. He testified eloquently at a Senate hearing on prison reform. Unfortunately, Sherley’s demeanor and behavior would become erractic and eventually downright scary. Marshall Grant, who as part of the Tennessee Three played bass and was there at that historic concert, perhaps knew Sherley better than anyone in Cash’s entourage. In his book I Was There When It Happened, Grant describes an encounter in which Sherley told him that, “I’d like to take a knife and start right now and just cut you all to hell. It’s not because I don’t love you, because I do. But that’s just the kind of person I am. I’d rather kill you than talk to you.” Needless to say, that kind of talk coming from an ex-con sent a chilling message to Cash and his troupe. Sherley was soon cut loose. He continued in a downward spiral culminating in suicide in 1978. Sherley was no more able to navigate the rules and regulations of a free society than he was those of a confined one. Grant surmises Cash regretted ever getting involved in the freeing of Glen Sherley. In fact, as the years went on, prison concerts and prison reform in general would fade away as priorities.
Some if not most of our readers are familiar with the sad, strange saga of Jack Henry Abbott. Abbott you may recall became associated with one of the preeminent writers of the last half of the 20th century – Norman Mailer. In 1977 while Mailer was in the process of writing Executioner’s Song, based on the life of Utah killer Gary Gilmore, cellmate Abbott began a long correspondence behind bars with the celebrated author. The correspondence detailed Abbott’s own hellish experience with the criminal justice system which became with Mailer’s help, the basis for the best selling book In The Belly Of The Beast. But Mailer wasn’t satisfied with just the book publishing. He wanted Abbott out of prison. The world should not be deprived of the writing talents of Jack Henry Abbott and he could only fulfill those talents outside of prison according to Mailer. In 1981, largely due to Mailer’s cheerleading and assistance, Abbott was granted parole and left for New York. It was there he became the toast of the city’s literati. According to biographer J. Michael Lennon, Mailer felt so comfortable around Abbott that he allowed his then wife Norris and daughter Danielle to entertain him unaccompanied. But Abbott’s celebrity soon turned to infamy. Six weeks after he left prison, Abbott would stab and kill an aspiring actor/writer who was waiting tables at a Manhattan restaurant Abbott was visiting. What drove Abbott to murder? Nothing more than an argument over a restroom. Abbott went briefly on the lam, but was later captured and brought to trial. Mailer briefly testified in court, but the press hammered him. Fellow writer William Styron was one of the few who came to Mailer’s defense. This was after a long running feud between the two. But Styron could relate. He once aided a convict who while out on parole committed a rape. Abbott was convicted of his crime and sent back to prison. He would later publish another book, My Return which didn’t fare as well as his first. In 2002, Abbott was found hanged in his cell. It was declared a suicide. Abbott would retain some of his high profile friends such as Susan Sarandon who named her son after him. But Norman Mailer would come to regret his involvement with Abbott. In a 1992 interview, he concluded that it was “another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in. It was a study in false vanity”. And for all of his salient points about the “injustices” of the criminal justice system, and that society somehow owed him an apology, Abbott never seemed to accept responsibility for his own reprehensible behavior. Ironically, Mailer had his own stabbing incident. Earlier in his life during a drunken rage, he stabbed his second wife Adele Morales with a penknife nearly nicking her heart. Later travelling the New York City cocktail circuit, Adele would regale party goers with her story…and her scar.
Another case of a celebrity/prisoner partnership was Bob Dylan’s involvement in the movement to free gifted boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Carter was convicted of multiple murders in 1967 stemming from a bar burglary in Patterson, New Jersey. Dylan became involved in Carter’s efforts to win a new trial after reading the boxer’s book The Sixteenth Round. Dylan even wrote a song for Carter (Hurricane) which proclaimed his innocence. Benefit concerts were held at Madison Square Garden and the Houston Astrodome to aid Carter’s legal fund. Due to all the publicity Dylan was able to generate, Carter was granted a new trial. He was again found guilty. His conviction was overturned by a federal district court judge in 1985 who cited racism as one factor in his decision. After losing an appeal, prosecutors declined to try Carter for a third time. Carter led a seemingly productive life after his release and served for a number of years as executive director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted. And while there is no hard evidence that Dylan ever doubted his innocence, there are troubling accounts from various sources that he and other supporters became disillusioned with Carter over things Carter did and said not related to the alleged murders. It’s quite telling that Dylan has not performed Hurricane publicly since 1976.
Beyond making a point about captives being really free, a broader point can be made about Cash, Mailer. Dylan, et al and their involvements. One could argue forcefully that these men became disheartened and dismayed due to their shared experiences in trying to lend a helping hand to convicts. And it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that because of their disillusionment, their art suffered, their fans suffered, and perhaps even society at large suffered as well. The public in general seems to have lost its collective stomach for celebrity attachments to lost causes and lost souls. Take for instance maverick singer/songwriter Steve Earle’s sympathetic 2002 song about John Walker Lindh, the so called American Taliban. Earle was deemed unpatriotic and worse by those in the mainstream press.
Perhaps a quote from Lennon’s biography (Norman Mailer: A Double Life) sums up not only Mailer’s attitude, but those of other well meaning luminaries from the musical and literary arts as well: “It forced him to recognize the folly of believing that sinners and criminals could invariably be saved by art, could move forward into greater humanity rather than retreating into less”.
Republished from Scene4.