17 November 2016

Did Johnny Cash Play a Concert at Boggo Road?

Did the great Johnny Cash ever play a concert at Boggo Road? It's a reasonable question to raise, as I have been contacted twice during recent months by media/marketing types wanting a chat about 'that time Johnny Cash played at Boggo Road'. He had of course famously played at Folsom and San Quentin prisons in the United States, so it seemed believable that he might have done something similar here in Brisbane.

Johnny Cash performs for prisoners at the Folsom Prison, 13 January 1968. (Dan Poush/AP)

I was well acquainted with the 'Cash at Boggo' story, having heard it from two men who had worked at the prison and went on to help manage the museum there in the late 1990s. These were my fellow Lancastrians Donny Walters and Bill Eddowes. They recounted Cash playing there in the early 1970s and practically sparking a riot, which resulted in Donny having to unceremoniously escort Mr Cash out of the building.

I was hugely impressed with this very blokey story, but it wasn't until a few months later that I started looking for more information on it. Surely there would be some mention of it in online Johnny Cash pages, or newspapers of the time, or prisoner or staff memoirs? I dug around but found nothing. I asked Donny and Bill again but they seemed a bit evasive about providing further info, so I turned to their good friend and colleague John Banks, the museum manager.

'Hey John, do you remember when Johnny Cash played that concert here?' 'What?' I explained what the other two had told me and a bit of a smile flashed across John's face. 'Is that what they told you?' 'Yeah'. John did a little 'humph' laugh. 'I think they might've been having a pull of your leg', he said.

I phoned a couple of other former officers, but neither of them had heard anything about any concert. When I mentioned this to Donny he half-heartedly persisted with the story for a few minutes before realising the gig was up, and he laughed a bit and said 'did I tell you about that time that Frank Sinatra played at Bogga Road?' I took that as a confession. His idea of humour included making up absurd little stories about prison life to trick gullible 'outsiders' like me. He had told me another one about a secret underground office in the prison, since used as a secret-document dump and then filled over with soil and rubble. That was another story that didn't hold up to inspection. Once you got to know Donny and Bill a bit better, it was easier to pick up on their tongue-in-cheek tall tales.

Donny and Bill retired soon afterwards, and sadly have since passed away. I never got to raise the subject with them again, and generally forgot about it. That is, until this year, when I got those phone calls. The men I spoke to seemed convinced the Cash concert had happened, but didn't let on who told them about it. I said I was pretty sure it did not happen, but then did some basic research and asked around anyway. I sent an email out to a couple of hundred former staff and inmates from Boggo Road, asking if anyone knew anything about this alleged concert. Over the next week I received 26 replies from men who had been there during the 1960s and/or 1970s. Every single one of them said it never happened. If it had, they would have known about it. These are people who remember just about everything about the place. If the Salvation Army band had played there in 1973, they'd remember it.

So there is nothing in the records about a concert, and people at the prison at the time denied it happened. In the absence of hard evidence - beyond a single story told by known pranksters - it is safe to say that Johnny Cash did not play at Boggo Road. It doesn't take much historical research to reach that simple conclusion.

Since starting this article, I have since seen the recent online source of the concert story, a marketing piece in which it is acknowledged there is no evidence outside what was said by Bill Eddowes (the same story told to me by Donny and Bill and then shown to be a 'joke'):
"The details are scant and hard to verify, as many prison records - such as correspondence from that era - were destroyed long ago... At this time a strict no photography rule applied inside all Queensland prisons; no known pictures exist."
How convenient. Unfortunately it looks like another case of cherry-picking unverifiable sources and ignoring better and contradictory evidence. In other words, don't let facts get in the way of a bit of marketing (see here and here for other examples of this practice). Any decent researcher with contacts in the field would have worked out that it wasn't a true story, and anyone who values credibility would not have shared it. And yet here we are with another bloody Boggo Road myth.

For the record, Cash played in Brisbane seven times, including 1971 and 1973. Venues included: Festival Hall, Milton Tennis Courts, and the Entertainment Centre. Venues not included: Boggo Road prison.

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