Folsom Prison, California

Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash

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Far from Folsom Prison
That's where I want to stay
And I'd let that lonesome whistle
Blow my Blues away Read full Lyrics
In the early 1950s, Johnny Cash finished school and joined the United States Air Force just in time for the Korean War. While stationed in West Germany, Cash used his military pay to purchase his first guitar. It was also while in Germany that Cash watched the 1951 drama Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. This sparked a transformation in Cash, who began to embody the spirit of the romantic outlaw. It was also this film that inspired what would become Cash's signature song "Folsom Prison Blues."

Once returned to American soil, Cash's musical career began to take off and his personal life took a downward spiral as he nursed an addiction to alcohol, amphetamines and barbiturates. This reinforced his bad boy image, solidified by his 1957 debut album release, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar. The album included two of what would become Cash's most beloved tracks: "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues." "I Walk the Line" snagged the #1 spot on the Country chart, while "Folsom Prison Blues" peaked at #3. But it was "Folsom Prison Blues" that defined Cash, both in terms of his art and character.

"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," Johnny Cash told Rolling Stone magazine when discussing his lyrics, "But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." Although the melody for "Folsom Prison Blues" is largely borrowed from Gordon Jenkins' "Crescent City Blues" – a controversy which eventually ended in Cash paying Jenkins a $75,000 settlement – the song assured Cash fame and a dedicated fan following. The song employs two folk traditions, that of the train song and prison song – musical styles, which Cash embraced throughout his career. Thematically, "Folsom Prison Blues" is indicative of Cash's compassion and empathy for prisoners. Although Cash was arrested for various misdemeanors, he never actually served a prison sentence. This fact did not deter him from becoming a champion for the incarcerated.

North gate of Folsom State Prison, near American River<br>Photo: <a href="" target="_blank">Vince</a>, via Flickr, CC 2.0North gate of Folsom State Prison, near American River
Photo: Vince, via Flickr, CC 2.0
As the name of the song implies, "Folsom Prison Blues" is about Folsom State Prison, a maximum security prison 20 miles northeast of Sacramento, California, that carried out more than 90 executions over a 42-year period. The prison is perhaps most famous because of Cash and the live performance he gave for inmates. Today, Folsom Prison is a medium security facility that aspires to provide inmates with vocational training and education programs. The prison still has a reputation for violence, as evidenced by riots in 2010 that left several inmates injured. In September 2012, Folsom Prison was the site of another violent incident involving several inmates and officers after a fire broke out in the yard.

Cash held his first-ever prison concert in 1958 at San Quentin Prison. Following the original success of this prison visit, Cash performed a live concert at Folsom Prison in 1968. In 1972, Cash traveled to Sweden where he performed at the Österåker Prison and even spoke Swedish, much to the appreciation of inmates.

Johnny Cash continued to cultivate his dark persona, flouncing country music convention by assuming the moniker "The Man in Black" and wearing all-black attire for performances instead of the country standard sparkles. Cash's career continued well into the '70s. He was considered the spokesperson for the poor and hungry, the marginalized and the downtrodden, for the incarcerated, and for those who had been betrayed by drugs and age.

Pitchfork Media placed "Folsom Prison Blues" at the No. 8 spot on its list of "The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s." Despite this accolade, during his 1980s relapse into addiction, Cash's career suffered a decline, only seeing rejuvenation in the 1990s when his music found a new generation of fans. Cash won a Grammy for his 1994 album American Recordings and later teamed up with country music duo Brooks and Dunn to contribute "Folsom Prison Blues" to the AIDS benefit album by the Red Hot Organization.

After battling a severe neurological disorder, Cash died of complications associated with this Shy-Drager syndrome in 2003. In 2005, the film biopic Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, was released. This film injected new life into Cash's repertoire and garnered a new generation of fans. One of the highlights of the film was the scene in which Phoenix as Cash performs "Folsom Prison Blues" for inmates at the prison.

Touted as the pioneer of rockabilly, Cash has also been described as "the lens through which to view American contradictions and challenges." Whether regarded as a reckless, feckless artist-addict who got famous for vice, not musical virtue, or as a truly compassionate soul who wanted to leave the world a better place for those ostracized and abandoned, Johnny Cash will forever remain a musical legend.

Suzanne van Rooyen
March 6, 2014

Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. Although she has a Master's degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and The Other Me.
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