Folsom Prison Blues

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"Folsom Prison Blues"
Single by Johnny Cash
from the album Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!
B-side"So Doggone Lonesome"
ReleasedDecember 15, 1955
RecordedJuly 30, 1955
StudioSun (Memphis, Tennessee)
Genre
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 by American singer-songwriter Johnny Cash. It was written in 1953[1] and first recorded in 1955 for his debut studio album Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957), appearing as the album's eleventh track. 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. Additionally, this recording was included on the compilation album All Aboard the Blue Train (1962). In June 2014, Rolling Stone ranked it No. 51 on its list of the 100 greatest country songs of all time.[2]

Cash performed the song live to a crowd of inmates at Folsom State Prison in 1968 for his live album At Folsom Prison (1968), released through Columbia Records. This version became a No. 1 hit on the country music charts and reached No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the same year. This version also won the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, at the 11th Annual Grammy Awards in 1969.

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."[3]

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".[4] 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.[5]

"Folsom Prison Blues" 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).[6] 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's sound has been described as country,[2][7][8] rockabilly,[8][9][10] and rock and roll.[10][11] The song was released as a single with another song recorded at the same session, "So Doggone Lonesome". Early in 1956, both sides reached No. 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]

"Folsom Prison Blues (Live)"
Johnny Cash Folsom Prison Blues single sleeve.png
Single by Johnny Cash
from the album At Folsom Prison
B-side"The Folk Singer"
ReleasedApril 30, 1968
RecordedJanuary 13, 1968
VenueFolsom State Prison (Folsom, California)
Genre
Length2:42
LabelColumbia
Songwriter(s)Johnny Cash
Producer(s)Bob Johnston
Johnny Cash singles chronology
"Rosanna's Going Wild"
(1967)
"Folsom Prison Blues (Live)"
(1968)
"Daddy Sang Bass"
(1968)

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, which was recorded and later released as a live album titled At Folsom Prison. 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. According to a special feature on the DVD release of the 2005 biopic Walk the Line, the prisoners avoided cheering 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).[6]

Released as a single, the live version reached number 1 on the country singles chart, and number 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]

Original version

Chart (1956) Peak
position
US Hot Country Songs (Billboard)[15] 4
US Billboard Best Sellers in Stores[16] 5
US Billboard Most Played in Juke Boxes[16] 5
US Billboard Most Played by Jockeys[16] 4

Live version

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[17] 32
US Billboard Adult Contemporary[18] 39

Certifications[edit]

Region Certification Certified units/sales
United Kingdom (BPI)[19] Silver 250,000double-dagger

double-dagger Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.

In popular culture[edit]

James Gunn used the song in his film The Suicide Squad (2021), during its opening sequence.[20][21]

Other versions[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "The Real Story Behind Johnny Cash & Folsom Prison Blues". folsomcasharttrail.com. Retrieved 2017-06-15.
  2. ^ a b "100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. June 2014. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  3. ^ "Anedotage.com". Archived from the original on 24 May 2011. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  4. ^ Robert Hilburn (2010-02-21). "Roots of Cash's hit tunes - latimes". Articles.latimes.com. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  5. ^ Streissguth 2004, p. 19–21.
  6. ^ a b PragueFrank's Country Music Discography: Johnny Cash, Part 1A. Retrieved 25 August 2015
  7. ^ Morris, Charles (February 24, 2020). "Folsom Prison Blues — Johnny Cash's chilling ballad became a country classic". Financial Times. Retrieved February 27, 2021.
  8. ^ a b Davies, David Martin (October 13, 2017). "Johnny Cash And The Story Behind 'Folsom Prison Blues'". Texas Public Radio. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  9. ^ "Johnny Cash Biography | The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum". Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on March 25, 2010. Retrieved February 27, 2021.
  10. ^ a b Lambert, James (2 July 2018). ""Folsom Prison Blues": 5 Things About This Johnny Cash Hit". Country Daily. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  11. ^ "Prison Tracks: "Folsom Prison Blues" - Sierra Detention Systems". Sierracompanies.com. 1968-01-13. Archived from the original on 2016-01-08. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  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. ^ a b "Johnny Cash Chart History (Hot Country Songs)". Billboard.
  16. ^ a b c Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 74.
  17. ^ "Johnny Cash Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard.
  18. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1993). Top Adult Contemporary: 1961–1993. Record Research. p. 44.
  19. ^ "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.
  20. ^ Fogarty, Paul (2 August 2021). "The Suicide Squad soundtrack: Every song in the DC movie explored". HITC.
  21. ^ Trenholm, Richard. "The Suicide Squad: All the classic songs and awful murders, ranked". CNET.
  22. ^ "Illustrated Slim Harpo discography". Wirz.de. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  23. ^ "Lenny Dee (2) - Turn Around, Look At Me / Folsom Prison Blues (Vinyl)". Discogs.com. Retrieved 2016-08-22.
  24. ^ "Killer Country [Elektra] - Jerry Lee Lewis | Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  25. ^ Musica.co.za Archived June 6, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Love War & The Ghost of Whitey Ford, Three Ring Project, 2008-09-23, retrieved 2018-05-25
  27. ^ "Jerry Reed - Folsom Prison Blues". YouTube. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  28. ^ "Accessory - Underbeat". Discogs.com. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  29. ^ "MOUTH DREAMS". Neilcic.com. Retrieved 29 April 2021.

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]