When Johnny Cash gave a concert for the inmates of San Quentin State Prison in 1969, he decided to play a song that he had heard for the first time at a party just five days earlier.
My name is Sue. How do you do? Now you gonna die—he belts out the lyrics and the audience cheers enthusiastically, while a few simple drum beats hint at the inevitable showdown between father and son.
He was so unprepared that he had to read the lyrics from a piece of paper and improvise most of the notes. But his deep, gravelly voice and the reduced arrangement transformed the simple, almost ridiculous story into an iconic tale of revenge, forgiveness and redemption. But above all, this carefree way in which he performed A Boy Named Sue, including coughs and spontaneous laughs, created such a strangely familiar atmosphere between the artist and the prisoners: Cause I am the son of a bitch that named you Sue. And with every line that he belted out against the cold cell walls, the inmates cheered and laughed louder—forgetting, for a brief yet magical moment, the desperate situation in which they found themselves.