This is about a man who loses his job at an auto plant, gets drunk, kills a store clerk, and is sentenced to 99 years in jail, earning him the nickname "Johnny 99."
At a New Jersey campaign stop in 1984, Ronald Reagan mentioned Springsteen's music as a symbol of American pride. Springsteen responded that Reagan was not actually listening to songs like this one about a laid-off worker who turns to murder.
Springsteen recorded this as a 4-track demo in his home. He put his vocals and guitar on the first two tracks, and used the remaining two for overdubs.
Like "Dancing In The Dark," contains stark lyrics which are masked by a happy beat.
The judge who sentences Johnny 99 is named "John Brown," which is also the name of the sheriff in Bob Marley's "I Shot The Sheriff." Bob Dylan also has a song called "John Brown," about a man who goes to war and comes back wounded.
Since Springsteen did not tour to support the album Nebraska. The first time he played this in concert was on the Born In The U.S.A. tour 2 years later.
In 2000, Los Lobos performed this on Badlands, a tribute album of songs from the album Nebraska.
Johnny Cash used the title as the name for an album he recorded in 1983. Cash covered it on the album as well as another song from Nebraska, "Highway Patrolman."
The Mahwah referred to in the lyrics is a New Jersey badluck auto town - the last Ford left the factory there in 1982. Mahwah is also the hometown of neo-R&B songstress Foxy Brown.