The Parramatta Folsom Prison Blues: what’s wrong with that?

Johnny Cash’s pertinent social commentary is likely to be lost in Tex Perkins’ translation Far From Folsom. AAP/Dean Lewins

Last week, Sydney Festival launched its 2015 program – under Belgium born director Lieven Bertels – and it was revealed that Australian rocker Tex Perkins will recreate Johnny Cash’s 1968 Folsom Prison concert at Parramatta Gaol in January.

I see this as a sad whitewash of local carceral history – and here’s why.

Johnny Cash wrote the song Folsom Prison Blues in 1955 after watching Carne Wilbur’s film about Folsom Prison. The track was popular with Folsom inmates, prompting them to write letters seeking Cash to perform for them. Cash performed at several US prisons culminating in the live recording At Folsom Prison in 1968.

Critics praised the album’s emotion and gritty realism. In 1971 he premiered his song Man in Black days after visiting students at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. Cash sang for “the poor and beaten down” and the “prisoner who has long paid for his crime”. One line – “each week we lose a hundred fine young men” – was a clear protest against the Vietnam War.

The audience responded with a standing ovation. Cash later confronted President Nixon about prison reform and also performed benefit shows on Native American reservations.

The targeted localism of Cash’s pertinent social commentary is likely to be lost in Tex Perkins’ translation Far From Folsom, almost 50 years after the original event, on the site of the former Parramatta Correctional Facility, closed in 2011.

Parramatta Correctional Centre. Wikimedia Commons

The former prison yard is now seemingly treated by Lieven Bertels as a mere hall for hire, a site for a disembodied spectacle in a bid to ensure bums on seats. What is likely to be glossed over, by what I see as an act of American imperialism, is a rich and significant local history.

Parramatta has been a continuous site of confinement since 1821 and includes the history of convict women, the Stolen Generations, Forgotten Australians, and those living with mental illness.

Parramatta represents the struggle for those Australians trapped by the systemic abuse in Australia’s punitive welfare regime.

Former Parramatta Gaol inmate and journalist Bernie Matthews has described the institutionalised violence inherent in Australian child welfare policy. In addition, the testimonies of survivors of Parramatta Girls’ Training School were heard this year by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The difficult lessons of such commentary will not be learned so long as arts programming deflects attention away from these narratives, rendering the associated historical sites as mere empty vessels for the imposition of more palatable events.

Sociologist Jacqueline Z. Wilson, in her analysis of the redevelopment of the decommissioned Pentridge Prison in Melbourne, notes the damage to a shared history when it is misappropriated for profit.

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison. Columbia Records

Bertels’ displacement of Cash’s 1968 Folsom Prison concert onto the site of the former Parramatta Gaol demonstrates that insensitive historical takeovers are neither limited to architectural renovation nor to private enterprise.

It is possible to programme artistic events that resonate directly and creatively with Australia’s carceral history. This year, the Brisbane Festival included The Painted Ladies, a collaboration between Aboriginal music pioneer Vic Simms and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who performed Simms’ country soul album The Loner, comprised of black protest songs and first recorded in Bathurst Gaol in 1973.

In Sydney, Parragirls, a support network of the Forgotten Australians of the Parramatta Girls’ Training School was established in 2006 to promote the conservation and history of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct in Western Sydney.

The result is their Memory Project, a social history and contemporary art initiative which aims to increase awareness of the institutionalisation of women and children. There is a rich practice of focused artistic engagement with history, place and memory that could have informed Bertels’ invigoration of Parramatta Gaol.

Instead Bertel chose a politically safe performance to suit audiences in “streak o’ lightning cars and fancy clothes”, as the original man-in-black sang, and attract corporate sponsorship.

But arts festivals that accept public funding have a moral obligation to include events that do what Johnny Cash’s work exemplified, to appropriately acknowledge local culture and to make a positive social impact on “the ones who are held back”.