Remember When Johnny Cash Flipped Off a Photographer at San Quentin Prison

When it comes to the Mount Rushmore of country music singers, Johnny Cash is among the most famous foursome. Blessed with a deep voice and a penchant for wearing black, Cash had hit songs, hit records and a life worthy of a big Hollywood biopic.

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But there is one iconic image of Cash that has stood the test of time and risen above all the others. That’s the shot of Cash flipping the bird to a cameraman while filming a TV special and recording a live album at California’s San Quentin prison. So, what was the story behind that image and why did an angered Cash give the ol’ No. 1 salute?

[RELATED: The Full Circle Story Behind Johnny Cash’s Final Song “Like the 309”]

Live Albums

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Johnny Cash released dozens of records, from singles to LPs, but it was when he began to record and release live albums from prisons that his star went even higher. Known first for songs like “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” Cash was developing an outlaw persona. And taking that persona to a rollicking jailhouse—well, that was a match made in outlaw heaven.

The first live album he released was the 1968 LP, At Folsom Prison. That record included songs like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Cocaine Blues” and “Jackson,” with his sweetheart June Carter. A year later, Cash released At San Quentin, which was recorded on February 24, 1969, and included songs like “Wanted Man,” “I Walk the Line” and “A Boy Named Sue.”

These live albums from jail did two things: increased Cash’s fame by highlighting his outlaw quality and his relationship to rough and tough men. But it also brought joy and fun to a bunch of people locked up with nowhere else to go. It was a win-win, to be sure. But that doesn’t mean everything went off without a hitch.

The Middle Finger Moment

There are two stories about the famous middle finger photo.

The first has to do with Cash’s frustration at the U.K. camera crew Granada Television and other photographers like Jim Marshall obstructing his view and his interaction with the prisoners of the jailhouse. In an extended cut of At San Quentin released in 2000, fans can overhear Cash complaining about the people on hand, including producers who were telling him where to stand and what to sing. So, as the first theory goes, it’s from this frustration that Cash leaned over and stuck out his middle finger in the face of the photographer Marshall. As in, Get out of my way, dude!

The other theory comes from Marshall, himself. Though it may be a little too convenient. Marshall has said that he wasn’t the recipient of Cash’s frustration. Instead, he claims that he went up to Cash and said, “John, let’s do a shot for the warden,” and that’s when Cash gave him the now-iconic rebellious pose. Marshall, a famous rock photographer, who has shot the original Woodstock, as well as the moment Hendrix lit his guitar on fire, and more other iconic rock moments, wants to credit his prodding for the photo.

Final Thoughts

According to the New York Times, Marshall has said of his craft, “When I’m photographing people, I don’t like to give any direction. There are no hair people fussing around, no make-up artists. I’m like a reporter, only with a camera; I react to my subject in their environment, and if it’s going well, I get so immersed in it that I become one with the camera.”

So, perhaps this means he asked Cash for the pose or perhaps it means he didn’t, given his general philosophy of not prompting his subjects. Perhaps in the long run, though, both versions of the story are true. Maybe Cash was frustrated with the proceedings and maybe Marshall did come up to him and ask for a shot. Perhaps the two moments converged into a moment of pure, outlaw anger. Boom: middle finger salute!

Either way, ever since that day in February 1969, the shot has become one of the most popular rock images ever. Cash in a jailhouse flipping the bird. Chef’s kiss.

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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