Folsom Prison Blues

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"Folsom Prison Blues"
Single by Johnny Cash
from the album With His Hot and Blue Guitar
B-side "So Doggone Lonesome"
Released December 15, 1955
April 1968 (re-release)
Format 7" single
Recorded July 30, 1955
Genre Folk blues, country, rockabilly
Length 2:50
Label Sun
Writer(s) Johnny Cash
Producer(s) Sam Phillips
Johnny Cash singles chronology
"Hey, Porter"
(1955)
"Folsom Prison Blues"
(1955)
"I Walk The Line"
(1956)

"Folsom Prison Blues" is a song written and recorded by American country music artist Johnny Cash. The song combines elements from two popular folk genres, the train song and the prison song, both of which Cash would continue to use for the rest of his career. It became one of Cash's signature songs. It was the eleventh track on his debut album With His Hot and Blue Guitar but was also included (same version) on All Aboard the Blue Train.

History[edit]

Cash was inspired to write this song after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951) while serving in West Germany in the United States Air Force at Landsberg, Bavaria (itself location of a famous prison). Cash recounted how he came up with the line "But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die": "I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that's what came to mind."[1]

Cash took the melody for the song and many of the lyrics from Gordon Jenkins's 1953 Seven Dreams concept album, specifically the song "Crescent City Blues".[2] Jenkins was not credited on the original record, which was issued by Sun Records. In the early 1970s, after the song became popular, Cash paid Jenkins a settlement of approximately $75,000.[3]

Cash included the song, considered one of his signature songs, in his repertoire for decades. Cash performed the song at Folsom Prison itself on January 13, 1968, and this version was eventually released on the At Folsom Prison album the same year. That opening song is more up-tempo than the Sun studio recording. According to Michael Streissguth, the cheering from the audience following the line "But I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die" was added in post-production. A special on the Walk the Line DVD indicates that the prisoners were careful not to cheer at any of Cash's comments about the prison itself, fearing reprisal from guards. Pitchfork Media placed this live version at number 8 on its list of "The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s."[4] The live performance of the song won Cash the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, the first of four he would win in his career, at the 1969 Grammy Awards.

Legacy[edit]

Cover versions[edit]

Chart performance[edit]

Chart (1968) Peak
position
U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles 1
U.S. Billboard Hot 100 32
Canadian RPM Country Tracks 1
Canadian RPM Top Singles 17
Preceded by
"D-I-V-O-R-C-E"
by Tammy Wynette
Billboard Hot Country Singles
number-one single

July 20-August 10, 1968
Succeeded by
"Heaven Says Hello"
by Sonny James
RPM Country Tracks
number-one single

July 20-August 3, 1968
Succeeded by
"What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)"
by Jerry Lee Lewis
Preceded by
"All the Time"
by Jack Greene
Billboard Hot Country Singles
number-one single of the year

1968
Succeeded by
"My Life (Throw it Away If I Want To)"
by Bill Anderson
From the album At Folsom Prison. The most popular live version of the song.

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Notes[edit]

Pop culture references[edit]

In the film Little Nicky (2000), when Nicky's brother, Adrian, is holding Valerie hostage and hears a subway approaching, Adrian sings "I hear a train a coming..." in a Cash-esque manner.

In the comic strip "Over the Hedge" for April 8, 2014, Verne, the turtle, is flying a kite. RJ, the raccoon, tries to figure out why and thinks that Verne must have done something terrible. Hammy, the red squirrel, asks, "Did he shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die?"

In an episode of The Red Green Show, Mike Hamar recounts a strange dream he'd had while in the local jail: He was sharing a cell with his mother, while a midget in an adjacent cell was singing The Folsom Prison Blues. Red comments that this is indeed strange, to which Mike replies "I haven't even gotten to the part where I fell asleep yet!"

In the episode Brother From Another Series of The Simpsons, Krusty the Clown parodies both the song and Cash's performance at Springfield Penitentiary. His version opens with the lines "I slugged some jerk in Tahoe, they gave me 1-3. My high-priced lawyer sprung me on a technicality!"

References[edit]

  • Streissguth, Michael. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece, Da Capo Press (2004). ISBN 0-306-81338-6.

External links[edit]