Folsom Prison Blues
Writer(s): Johnny Cash (see lyrics here)
Released: December 15, 1955 (studio), April 30, 1968 (live)
First Charted: February 11, 1956 (studio), May 25, 1968 (live)
Peak: 4 CW, 5 DF (studio), 32 US, 36 CB, 23 GR, 32 HR, 39 AC, 14 CW, 17 CN, 4 DF (live) (Click for codes to charts.)
Sales (in millions): -- US, 0.25 UK
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 1.0 radio, 52.0 video, 178.65 streaming
Click on award for more details.
About the Song:
Johnny Cash was born in Arkansas in 1932 and grew up dirt poor. At 12, he started writing songs. After graudating from high school, he briefly worked in an auto factory in Michigan before enlisting in the Air Force. While in Germany on assignment, he learned to play guitar and wrote his first important songs – one of which was “Folsom Prison Blues.” SS
After his release from the Air Force in 1954, Cash took a course on radio announcing while working as an appliance salesman. His brother Roy introduced him to Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, two mechanics at the garage who played guitar. The three started performing together, eventually auditioning for Sam Phillips at Sun Records and landing a recording contract. SS His first session produced “Hey Porter” and “Cry! Cry! Cry!” The latter became his first top-20 country hit.
With Perkins on flat-top guitar and Grant on upright bass, Cash recorded “Folsom Prison Blues,” SS “a country song with a rockabilly accent,” TC “touches of gospel and an uncanny sense of spiritualty” TC presented with “an unsually poetic eye.” TC It was paired with “So Doggone Lonesome”for a single which reached #4 on the country charts. Phillips reportedly didn’t like “Folsom” and wanted to send it to Tennessee Ernie Ford, but Cash wanted to keep it for himself. SS
It became a concert favorite and was naturally the opening song when he performed a concert at Folsom Prison in 1968. The “live energy and enthusiasm was captured so well…it was as if the song was ‘happy’ to be home.” AC It was released as a single and went to #1 on the country charts.
Cash never served actual prison time, “but the utter conviction he brought to this tale sends chills up the spine.” SS He said there are those who are “firmly convinced…that I led a life of violent crime.” SS His tale of “a cold-blooded, unrepentant convicted killer” SS was partly inspired by a 1951 documentary called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. He realized everyone “was locked in some type of prison. It might be loneliness, poverty, booze…but there was something holding just about everyone back.” SS The song’s most vivid line (“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”) came from his goal to, as he said, “think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person.” SS
First posted 8/23/2023.