Folsom Prison Blues

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"Folsom Prison Blues"
Johnny Cash Folsom Prison Blues single sleeve.png
Single by Johnny Cash
from the album With His Hot and Blue Guitar, Sings Hank Williams, All Aboard the Blue Train, and I Walk the Line
B-side"So Doggone Lonesome"
ReleasedDecember 15, 1955
April 1968 (re-recording)
Format7" single
RecordedJuly 30, 1955, Sun Studio, Memphis, Tennessee
GenreRock and roll,[1][2] rockabilly,[3][4] country[5]
Length2:50
LabelSun
Songwriter(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 in 1953[6] and first recorded in 1955 by American singer-songwriter Johnny Cash. The song combines elements from two popular folk styles, the train song and the prison song, both of which Cash continued to use for the rest of his career. It was one of Cash's signature songs. It was the eleventh track on his debut album With His Hot and Blue Guitar and it was also included (same version) on All Aboard the Blue Train. A live version, recorded among inmates at Folsom State Prison itself, became a #1 hit on the country music charts in 1968. In June 2014, Rolling Stone ranked it No. 51 on its list of the 100 greatest country songs of all time.[7]

Original recording, 1955[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 the 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."[8]

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".[9] 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 US$75,000 following a lawsuit.[10]

The song was recorded at the Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee on July 30, 1955. The producer was Sam Phillips, and the musicians were Cash (vocals, guitar), Luther Perkins (guitar), and Marshall Grant (bass).[11] Like other songs recorded during his early Sun Records sessions, Cash had no drummer in the studio, but replicated the snare drum sound by inserting a piece of paper (like a dollar bill) under the guitar strings and strumming the snare rhythm on his guitar. The song was released as a single with another song recorded at the same session, "So Doggone Lonesome". Early in 1956, both sides reached #4 on the Billboard C&W Best Sellers chart.[12]

When photographer Jim Marshall asked Cash why the song's main character was serving time in California's Folsom Prison after shooting a man in Reno, Nevada, he responded, "That's called poetic license."[13]

Live recording, 1968[edit]

Cash opened almost all of his concerts with "Folsom Prison Blues," after greeting the audience with his trademark introduction, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," 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 version of the song is more up-tempo than the original Sun 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. The performance again featured Cash, Perkins and Grant, as on the original recording, together with W.S. Holland (drums).[11]

Released as a single, the live version reached #1 on the country singles chart, and #32 on the Hot 100, in 1968.[12] Pitchfork Media placed this live version at number 8 on its list of "The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s."[14] The live performance of the song won Cash the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, the first of four he won in his career, at the 1969 Grammy Awards.

Chart performance[edit]

Chart (1968) Peak
position
Canadian RPM Country Tracks 1
Canadian RPM Top Singles 17
US Hot Country Songs (Billboard)[15] 1
US Billboard Hot 100[16] 32
US Billboard Adult Contemporary[17] 39

Certifications[edit]

Region Certification Certified units/Sales
United Kingdom (BPI)[18] Silver 200,000double-dagger

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone
double-daggersales+streaming figures based on certification alone

Other versions[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Prison Tracks: "Folsom Prison Blues" - Sierra Detention Systems". Sierracompanies.com. 1968-01-13. Retrieved 2015-08-25.[dead link]
  2. ^ Lambert, James. ""Folsom Prison Blues": 5 Things About This Johnny Cash Hit". Country Daily. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  3. ^ Bill Janovitz. "Folsom Prison Blues - Johnny Cash | Song Info". AllMusic. Retrieved 2016-08-22.
  4. ^ "Johnny Cash Biography | The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum". Rockhall.com. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  5. ^ Davies, David Martin (October 13, 2017). "Johnny Cash And The Story Behind 'Folsom Prison Blues'". Texas Public Radio. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  6. ^ "The Real Story Behind Johnny Cash & Folsom Prison Blues". folsomcasharttrail.com. Retrieved 2017-06-15.
  7. ^ "100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  8. ^ Anedotage.com Archived May 24, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Robert Hilburn (2010-02-21). "Roots of Cash's hit tunes - latimes". Articles.latimes.com. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  10. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 19–21.
  11. ^ a b PragueFrank's Country Music Discography: Johnny Cash, Part 1A. Retrieved 25 August 2015
  12. ^ a b Joel Whitburn, Top Country Singles 1944-1993, Record Research Inc., 1994, p.62
  13. ^ Schleuter, Roger (2017-12-30). "Johnny Cash song leaves some with a burning question". Belleville News-Democrat. Retrieved 2018-12-04.
  14. ^ "Staff Lists: The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s | Features". Pitchfork. 2006-08-18. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  15. ^ "Johnny Cash Chart History (Hot Country Songs)". Billboard.
  16. ^ "Johnny Cash Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard.
  17. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1993). Top Adult Contemporary: 1961–1993. Record Research. p. 44.
  18. ^ "British single certifications – Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved 26 July 2019. Select singles in the Format field. Select Silver in the Certification field. Type Folsom Prison Blues in the "Search BPI Awards" field and then press Enter.
  19. ^ "Illustrated Slim Harpo discography". Wirz.de. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  20. ^ "Lenny Dee (2) - Turn Around, Look At Me / Folsom Prison Blues (Vinyl)". Discogs.com. Retrieved 2016-08-22.
  21. ^ "Killer Country [Elektra] - Jerry Lee Lewis | Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  22. ^ Musica.co.za Archived June 6, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ Love War & The Ghost of Whitey Ford, Three Ring Project, 2008-09-23, retrieved 2018-05-25
  24. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8IFFQ9-GFA
  25. ^ https://www.discogs.com/Accessory-Underbeat/master/346248

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]