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Folsom Prison Blues
|"Folsom Prison Blues"|
US single release of the 1968 live recording
|Single by Johnny Cash|
|from the album Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! and At Folsom Prison|
|B-side||"So Doggone Lonesome"|
|Released||December 15, 1955
April 1968 (re-recording)
|Johnny Cash singles chronology|
"Folsom Prison Blues" is a song written in 1953 and first recorded in 1955 by American singer-songwriter Johnny Cash. The song combines elements from two popular folk styles, the train song and the prison song, both of which Cash continued to use for the rest of his career. It was one of Cash's signature songs. It was the eleventh track on his debut album With His Hot and Blue Guitar and it was also included (same version) on All Aboard the Blue Train. A live version, recorded among inmates at Folsom State Prison itself, became a No. 1 hit on the country music charts in 1968. In June 2014, Rolling Stone ranked it No. 51 on its list of the 100 greatest country songs of all time.
Original recording, 1955
Cash was inspired to write this song after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951) while serving in West Germany in the United States Air Force at Landsberg, Bavaria (itself the location of a famous prison). Cash recounted how he came up with the line "But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die": "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."
Cash took the melody for the song and many of the lyrics from Gordon Jenkins's 1953 Seven Dreams concept album, specifically the song "Crescent City Blues". Jenkins was not credited on the original record, which was issued by Sun Records. In the early 1970s, after the song became popular, Cash paid Jenkins a settlement of approximately US$75,000 following a lawsuit.
The song was recorded at the Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee on July 30, 1955. The producer was Sam Phillips, and the musicians were Cash (vocals, guitar), Luther Perkins (guitar), and Marshall Grant (bass). Like other songs recorded during his early Sun Records sessions, Cash had no drummer in the studio, but replicated the snare drum sound by inserting a piece of paper (like a dollar bill) under the guitar strings and strumming the snare rhythm on his guitar. The song was released as a single with another song recorded at the same session, "So Doggone Lonesome". Early in 1956, both sides reached No. 4 on the Billboard C&W Best Sellers chart.
When photographer Jim Marshall asked Cash why the song's main character was serving time in California's Folsom Prison after shooting a man in Reno, Nevada, he responded, "That's called poetic license."
Live recording, 1968
Cash opened almost all of his concerts with "Folsom Prison Blues," after greeting the audience with his trademark introduction, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," for decades. Cash performed the song at Folsom Prison itself on January 13, 1968, which was recorded and later released as a live album titled At Folsom Prison. That opening version of the song is more up-tempo than the original Sun recording. According to Michael Streissguth, the cheering from the audience following the line "But I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die" was added in post-production. According to a special feature on the DVD release of the 2005 biopic Walk the Line, the prisoners avoided cheering at any of Cash's comments about the prison itself, fearing reprisal from guards. The performance again featured Cash, Perkins and Grant, as on the original recording, together with W.S. Holland (drums).
Released as a single, the live version reached number 1 on the country singles chart, and number 32 on the Hot 100, in 1968. Pitchfork Media placed this live version at number 8 on its list of "The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s." The live performance of the song won Cash the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, the first of four he won in his career, at the 1969 Grammy Awards.
|US Hot Country Songs (Billboard)||4|
|US Billboard Best Sellers in Stores||5|
|US Billboard Most Played in Juke Boxes||5|
|US Billboard Most Played by Jockeys||4|
|Canadian RPM Country Tracks||1|
|Canadian RPM Top Singles||17|
|US Hot Country Songs (Billboard)||1|
|US Billboard Hot 100||32|
|US Billboard Adult Contemporary||39|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Silver||200,000|
sales+streaming figures based on certification alone
- Blues musician Slim Harpo released a version as a single in 1968.
- Organist Lenny Dee includes an instrumental version on his 1969 Decca Records release, Turn Around, Look At Me. It was also released as a promotional 45 RPM single with the title track.
- Jerry Lee Lewis included the song on his 1981 album, Killer Country
- South African singer Ray Dylan included the song on his album Goeie Ou Country - Op Aanvraag.
- Artist Everlast included the song on his album Love, War and the Ghost of Whitey Ford
- Jerry Reed covered and included the song in his 1973 album: Lord, Mr. Ford
- The Reverend Horton Heat included the song on their 1999 release Holy Roller.
- Johnny Cash recorded another version of the song in 1988 and it is on his Classic Cash: Hall of Fame Series album.
- German EBM band Accessory featured this track on their 2007 album Underbeat.
- British band Blyth Power released a cover as the B-side of their 1987 single, "Ixion".
- American mashup artist Neil Cicierega mashed this song up with Baby and The Reason on his album Mouth Dreams 
- American Reggae band Stick Figure covered the song on their 2009 album Smoke Stack
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