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University of Arkansas at Little Rock

UALR Trio Interviewed for BBC Program on Johnny Cash

An article by UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture archivist Dr. Colin Woodward helped inspire an upcoming BBC radio program about the lesser-known prison concerts of Arkansas native Johnny Cash.

Robins, Kirk, Woodward, and Wheeler in Little Rock.

The 25-minute program will air beginning Saturday, Jan. 5, on BBC World Service and cover Cash’s 1969 appearance at the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction.

That performance, while not as popular as Cash’s Folsom or San Quentin concerts, was remarkable in its own right because it unofficially set in motion prison reform in Arkansas, Woodward wrote.

London natives Jo Wheeler and Danny Robins visited the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture to research the concert. During their visit, they interviewed Woodward; Deborah Baldwin, associate provost of the center and the dean of the UALR College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences; and Dr. John Kirk, Donaghey professor and chair of the UALR history department.

Kirk, who is currently working on a biography of Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, a politician instrumental to prison reform in Arkansas, noted that, “The BBC radio documentary illustrates the international interest in many aspects of Arkansas history.”

British-born Kirk arrived at UALR from the University of London in 2010 and is one of the most prolific writers on the state’s civil rights history.

Wheeler and Robins were inspired to visit Arkansas after reading “When I Get Out of Cummins,” an article published by Woodward in conjunction with the 2012 Winthrop Rockefeller Centennial Celebration.

Woodward’s article outlines prison-reform efforts by Cash and then-Gov. Rockefeller. At the time of the concert, conditions at Arkansas prisons were deplorable, with rampant corruption, abuse, malnourishment, and sanitation problems. In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the entire Arkansas prison system unconstitutional.

The singer known as the Man in Black was so deeply moved by his visit to Cummins that he gave $5,000 toward the construction of a chapel there. Rockefeller gave $10,000, Woodward wrote.

Robins, Wheeler, and Woodward pore over Cash concert archives.

“Johnny Cash and the Forgotten Prison Blues” will air on BBC Radio 4 at 10 a.m. Monday, Jan. 7. The program also will run four times on BBC World Service:

  • 3:05 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 5
  • 8:05 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 6
  • 2:05 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 6
  • 8:05 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 6

The UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture, located in the Arkansas Studies Institute, offers a collection of resources, including significant papers of governors Carl Bailey, Winthrop Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers, Frank White, and Jim Guy Tucker. In total, the collections comprise about 10,000 linear feet, 70,000 images, and approximately 8,000 books.