Prison Tracks: “Folsom Prison Blues”

As a high-security symbol of society’s ability to enforce its laws, correctional institutions have long been fertile ground for songs and stories. In 1955, Johnny Cash was able to tap into this vein with his single “Folsom Prison Blues.”

History of the Song

The seed that would later bloom into the famous song was planted in 1952 while Cash was serving with the US Air Force in West Germany. The movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison—a fictional account of a ruthless warden at the famous prison, whose tactics result in violent riots and escape attempts—was making the rounds in Europe, and Cash borrowed the melody and some of the lyrics from Gordon Jenkins’s song “Crescent City Blues” to tell the story of a man serving time in Folsom. The song quickly became one of his signatures and was rated 8th best song of the 1960s by Pitchfork Media.

History of the Prison

As the second-oldest prison in California (after San Quentin), one of the first maximum security prisons, and the place of execution for 93 prisoners between 1895 and 1937, Folsom has earned its infamy. The facility, which was opened in 1800, was built to hold 1,800 inmates in stone cells measuring 4×8 feet with 6” eye slots. In the 40s, officials were kind enough to drill air holes in the cell doors, which are still in use today.

As of 2009, the prison has grown to 4,427 inmates, many of whom work in the prison’s metal shop producing license plates, signs, etc. There is also an academic program that helps prisoners earn their GED, improve their English, and learn basic computer skills.

Role in Cash’s Career

By the late 60s, Cash’s commercial success with songs like “I Walk the Line,” “Understand Your Man,” and “Ring of Fire” had run out and his increasing dependence on drugs was adversely affecting his popularity. In 1967, he sought help, and by the end of that year, he was looking for a way to turn his career around. Taking advantage of Bob Johnson’s new role in Columbia Records and his reputation for unorthodox promotions, Cash pitched the idea of recording a live album in a prison. The project received a green light and preparations began for a concert to take place on January 13, 1968.

The faster, electric version of “Folsom Prison Blues” recorded that day has become one of rock and roll’s most iconic songs, the album’s reception succeeded revitalizing Cash’s career, and it sealed the themes of punishment and redemption as defining features of his work. The album was followed by another recorded at San Quinton State Prison, which became Cash’s first to reach number one on the Pop chart, but the original At Folsom Prison remained the defining work in his legacy and has been honored as number 88 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time.

See Prison Tracks: “Chain Gang”