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Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues, ‘At Folsom Prison’

‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is a country classic by American singer-songwriter Johnny Cash. The song is a mix of two old folk styles, the train song and the prison song. First recorded in 1955, the song appeared on Cash’s debut studio album ‘Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blues Guitar!’, released through the famous Sun Records. But it is the electrifying live version of the track, taken from the 1968 album ‘At Folsom Prison’, that made the biggest impact on Cash’s career. 

In 1953, Cash was serving in the United States Air Force Security Service when he watched Crane Wilbur’s film ‘Inside the Walls of Folsom State’. Inspired by the movie and while reflecting on what prison life must be like, Cash subsequently wrote ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. The song instantly resonated with inmates, as they regularly wrote to Cash requesting for him to perform at their prison. 

Cash’s musical career took off in the late 1950’s but it soon fell into a dwindling state consisting of label fallouts and alcohol and substance abuse. In an attempt to get his career back on track, Cash and his team pitched the idea of recording a live album at Folsom State Prison to his label at the time, Columbia Records. The label agreed and so in January 1968, Cash and his band performed a morning and afternoon show on a stage in the cafeteria, behind death row. 

The performance catches Cash at a moment in his career where his commercial success had waned. But his confidence and foresight in terms of the events’ impact stood to him and indeed it did propel the country star to a renewed era of success. Cash entered Folsom State Prison in need of a career U-Turn and with these performances being captured, hearing how much his audience resonated with his music, it resulted in Cash exiting the event as a mainstream superstar. 

There has been much speculation about the location mentioned in ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. Cash sings: 


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”

If the character that Cash writes about, shot a man in Reno, Nevada, then why is he in Folsom State Prison which is located in California? According to Cash, “That’s called poetic license.”

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