At Madison Square GardenRecorded live in December, 1969, but not released until 2002, At Madison Square Garden documents Cash at the height of his commercial, and arguably artistic, success. After a few less-than impressive studio albums, Johnny hit record-setting numbers with 1968’s live album At Folsom Prison and the 1969 follow-up At San Quentin. In summer 1969, ABC took a gamble and gave Cash a variety show, which became a minor hit. Cash seemed to take particular pride in mixing Hollywood stars and country legends with the songwriters his friends in Nashville usually cast off as long-haired freaks – Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Linda Rondstadt, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. Johnny’s personal life was on a roll too: drugs were out of his life, and his new bride June Carter Cash missed this show because she was six-months pregnant with their future son, John.

It is in this context that we’re given a 22-song set (plus 4 more songs from his entourage) which reveal a different side of Johnny from the wild and raucous prison albums. That said, New York is not known as a country music town and might be just as strange a place to record a Cash live album as a prison. What Cash proves over 77 minutes is that he was a consummate performer and storyteller, able to engage any audience anywhere.

After his traditional set opener, Big River, Cash quickly proves that he is going to take a different approach from his recent prison albums. On those prison stages, Cash won the audience over by entering their world:

“Well, the song of the prisoner is a kind of a sad song… I asked a man on death row what it was like being on death row, living life on death row, he said, ‘Hell, man, it ain’t like nothing. You don’t live for tomorrow or next month or next month, ‘cause you don’t that you got tomorrow or next week or next month, so you live for today. And that’s a kind of a lonely life.”

He made each and every convict feel as if he knew their loneliness. On At Madison Square Garden, however, he invites the audience to enter his world:

“Thank you very much, it’s good to be with you in New York… you know, we come from the flat, black, delta land in Arkansas… and, after I got into the music field and started writing and recording and singing songs about the things I knew, I wrote a lot of songs about life as I knew it as a little, bitty boy.”

Cash structures his set, then, like one of his travelogue LPs, guiding the audience through places and stories, interspersing the hits amongst clusters of thematically-grouped songs:

  • Songs of Country Life: I Still Miss Someone/Five Feet High and Rising/Pickin’ Time all carry a strong note of Cash reminiscing on simpler times in his childhood home of Dyess, Arkansas.
  • Songs of War: Cash had recently played for the troops in Vietnam and he was deeply affected by the experience (see below). He recasts Remember the Alamo and the folk tune Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream to protest the war. His introduction to Alamo is stirring: “History lesson, 1835… 180 Americans against 5,000. Mr. President, that’s the kind of odds we got today.” He then goes on to play the definitive version of the tune. With the military drums stripped away, it’s far more stirring than his studio version.

A whiplash version of Wreck of the Old ’97 – a song which doesn’t seem to have left his set since the day he wrote – makes sure things don’t get too dour.

  • Songs of the Prisoner: Cash sings a trio of ballads, The Long Black Veil/The Wall/Send a Picture of Mother, which challenge the listener to look at these men and women with compassion. Another roaring version of Folsom Prison Blues, and Cash walks offstage for a break (as the band plays an extended outro).

During his break, Johnny’s touring entourage play their hits: Carl Perkins plays a by-the-book Blue Suede Shoes, The Statler Brothers play their cheesy hit Flowers on the Wall, and the Carter Family sing Wildwood Flower and Worried Man Blues. With June back at home, it’s wonderful to hear Mother Maybelle be the focus once again. Cash then returns to fire through a Boy Named Sue and Cocaine Blues. Interestingly, the biggest cheers of the night erupt in the first line of Sue, demonstrating just what a hit it had become for Cash. Sadly, it would be one of his last truly monumental singles. In this version, Cash hilariously censors himself with a “beep”, and then turns around and quips, “You can’t say ‘son of a bitch’ on stage.”

  • Songs of Justice: Cash introduces Jesus Was a Carpenter, a new song from his forthcoming LP, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash, that places Jesus in the social turmoil of the late 60s. He then turns to two of his great narratives on the plight of the Native American, The Ballad of Ira Hayes and As Long as the Grass Shall Grow. Despite only singing the first two verses of As Long…, he delivers them with a deep, mourning passion, pausing emphatically as he sings of Indian graveyards flooded by the Allegheny River dam.

Sing a Travelin’ Song is another new one, this time written by his sister-in-law Helen Carter’s son Kenny who was killed in a car accident earlier that year at the age of 16. Despite his young age, this lonesome tune would have been worthy of any of Cash’s Sun releases.

  • Songs of Faith: Cash concludes his show by drawing the audience into the world of his simple faith. As with San Quentin, his tales of his recent tour of Israel are far warmer in person than on the studio LP, The Holy Land. He Turned the Water into Wine/Were You There/Daddy Sang Bass all paint a picture of a man seeking humble solace in the story of Jesus.

With that, the whole group joins him for a medley of hits – including snippets of Ring of Fire and I Walk the Line – and Johnny then closes the evening with his 1959 lullaby of life back home, Suppertime. From beginning to end, it’s a brilliant set that both appeases and challenges the listener. With Bob Wooten settling into his role in the famed Tennessee Three following the death of guitarist Luther Perkins, the music is wonderfully played. While it lacks the amphetamine-induced wildness of early 60s sets, and the on-the-edge feeling of the prison concerts, this release sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest releases in Cash’s canon.


Other Releases from the Era:

  • Live at Annex 14 NCO Club – In At Madison Square Garden, Cash comments on his recent tour of Vietnam. Finally, on Bootleg Vol. III, Columbia has given us his live set played before the troops! His autobiographies document the difficulty he had playing this show – the trip left him with a blistering fever – yet Cash wouldn’t let anything stop him from entertaining these men he respected so deeply. We have a 9-song set full of hits: Big River/Wreck of the Old ‘97/Tennessee Flat Top Box/Remember the Alamo/Cocaine Blues/Jackson/Long-Legged Guitar Pickin-Man/Ring of Fire/Daddy Sang Bass. The sound quality is lacking, but not bad for something recorded in a war zone over 40 years ago! None of these are definitive versions, but they are essential for fans wanting to hear more of Johnny’s astounding ability to connect with people wherever he went.
  • Girl from the North Country – In 1969, Bob Dylan released Nashville Skyline, one of many albums in which he made a major stylistic shift from his past. The album opens with a glorious re-imagining of a tune from his debut album, this time a duet with Cash. Their admiration for one another was already documented. Here, their duet is wild, ragged, and absolutely unforgettable. Bootlegs (now available on YouTube) reveal they recorded a host of other tunes as well: One Too Many Mornings, Good Ol’ Mountain Dew, I Still Miss Someone, Careless Love, Matchbox, That’s Alright Mama, Big River, I Walk the Line, You Are My Sunshine, Ring of Fire, Guess Things Happen That Way, Just a Closer Walk with Thee, and T is for Texas. They also sang a masterful live version on The Johnny Cash Show that summer. Available on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.
  • Six White Horses – A beautiful acoustic demo recorded by Cash, this song was a tribute to JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Cash’s brother Tommy had a hit with it that same year. Available on Bootleg Vol. II.
  • Come Along and Ride This Train – Cash took his 1960 concept album Ride This Train as a model for a series of story-based medleys he played on many episodes of The Johnny Cash Show. Each version was a unique set of stories threaded together by this new tune. Two versions of this song were recorded, an acoustic demo, as well as full-band, boom-chicka-boom version. Both are wonderful, yet unreleased. The demo is available on Bootleg Vol. II. The studio version is on Johnny Cash’s America (not to be confused with the 1972 album America).
  1. Dean Goodman says:

    This is an amazing website. I’ll be spending my weekend on it. It seems Johnny had a cold at Madson Square Garden. He also stumbled a bit with his storytelling. Maybe he was nervous. And I never got to the bottom of whether Ken Jones was 16 or 17. I probably listen to it more than the prison albums. Johnny had to work harder in this unfamiliar setting. It’s also good to hear Helen’s voice in the perfunctory intros, and of course Anita at any time.

    • Thanks very much. I agree that Johnny was working hard here. The cold might have been “a cold” – dry throat caused by his amphetamine use. Although the legend says he went cold turkey after his cave experience before Folsom Prison, the reality is different. He was getting back on track in 1968, but was still using, albeit at a reduced rate. He would quit around 1972, only to get hooked again in the late 70s. Years earlier he had a big break with a New York audience at Carnegie Hall that he blew due to his drug use – could barely sing a note. I’m sure that was in his mind as he played Madison Square Garden. I think the nerves drove him to something great here. Like you, I’m glad to hear the Carter sisters come to the fore again in June’s absence, much as they did before the romance began (see Anita’s duet on Were You There When they Crucified My Lord, 1964).

      Not sure about Ken Jones. I looked up his grave marker in Hendersonville Memory Gardens, but it only lists the years, 1952-1969. Wikipedia said he was 16 when he died, which is plausible if he hadn’t yet reached his 1969 birthday.

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