Young Johnny Cash had a reputation as a “bad boy”. Drug addiction, alcohol problems, police reports and lawsuits were an integral part of his life. Although the “Man in Black” never served time, the prisoners considered him theirs on the board. He used the motifs of prison folklore in his work and did not hesitate to give concerts in correctional facilities.
The story of creation and the meaning of the song Folsom Prison Blues
The composition Folsom Prison Blues was especially popular among American prisoners. Cash named her after a prison located in Folsom, California.
The history of the composition began when Johnny served in the US Air Force. Its part was located in the German city of Landsberg am Lech, where the famous penitentiary is also located. Adolf Hitler and some of his associates were imprisoned in the Landberg prison in their youth.
But she didn’t inspire Cash. The idea for the song came to the musician while watching the crime drama Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (“Beyond the Walls of Folsom Prison”).
Johnny told how he wrote the line “But I shot a guy in Reno to watch him die”:
I sat with a pen, trying to come up with the worst reason why one person can kill another … However, it came to my mind pretty quickly.
Johnny borrowed the melody and some lines from the song Crescent City Blues by Gordon Jenkins (Gordon Jenkins).
Recording and release of Folsom Prison Blues
The composition was recorded at the Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee on July 30, 1955 with producer Sam Phillips. It was featured on Cash’s debut album With His Hot and Blue Guitar.
The Folsom Prison Blues single was released in December 1955. It climbed to number four on the Billboard C&W Best Sellers chart.
Video of Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
Below you can watch a live video from Johnny Cash’s performance.
In 1968, Johnny Cash spoke to the inmates of Folsom Prison. A live version of Folsom Prison Blues was released as a single. It topped the Billboard Country chart and hit the Billboard Hot 100. A year later, Cash won a Grammy for it for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
Let’s also watch the music video from Walk the Line, a biopic starring Johnny Cash as Joaquin Phoenix.
- There was no drummer to record the first studio version of Folsom Prison Blues. Cash imitated the sound of drums by tucking a dollar bill under the guitar strings and tapping the rhythm with his finger.
- In the seventies, Jenkins sued Cash. Johnny was forced to pay him seventy-five thousand dollars.
- The song is included in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Folsom Prison Blues Lyrics by Johnny Cash
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rollin’ ’round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine
Since, I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison
And time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a-rollin’
On down to San Antone
When I was just a baby
My Mama told me, “Son
Always be a good boy
Don’t ever play with guns,”
But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowin’
I hang my head and cry
I bet there’s rich folks eatin’
In a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinking coffee
And smokin’ big cigars
But I know I had it comin’
I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a-movin’
And that’s what tortures me
Well, if they freed me from this prison
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move out over a little
Farther down the line
Far from Folsom Prison
That’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle
Blow my blues away
Lyrics Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash Alternate
I hear the train is coming
Passing the turn
And I didn’t see the sun
I don’t remember how much
I’m stuck in Folsom Jail
And time stands here
And that train keeps going
South to San Antonio
When I was a child,
Mom said to me: “Son,
be a good boy
And don’t play with guns.”
But I shot a guy in Reno
Just to watch him die.
When I hear that whistle
I cry in shame
I’m sure the rich eat there.
In a trendy dining car
Maybe they drink coffee
And they smoke big cigars
But I know it’s my own fault
I know that I can’t be free
And those people go on
And it tortures me
Oh, if only I could be set free
If I was on that train
I would definitely take a little
Further south on the railroad
Away from Folsom Jail
This is where I would like to stay
And let this lonely whistle
Dispelled my longing
I don’t see anything good coming from prisons. You lock them up like animals, rip out their souls and character, and when you let them out, they are even worse than they were before imprisonment.