Folsom Prison Blues

Folsom Prison Blues: A Johnny Cash Classic

Fred Bahnson 

In this article, we delve into the iconic song “Folsom Prison Blues” by the legendary American singer-songwriter Johnny Cash. Released in 1955, the song quickly became a signature piece for Cash and holds a special place in the hearts of music enthusiasts. Join us as we explore the origins, significance, and impact of this timeless classic.

The Birth of “Folsom Prison Blues”

Early Recording and Debut Album

Written by Johnny Cash in 1953, “Folsom Prison Blues” was first recorded and released as a single in 1955. It later found its place as the eleventh track on Cash’s debut studio album, “Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!” in 1957. The song cleverly incorporates elements from two popular folk styles: the train song and the prison song, which Cash continued to explore throughout his career. Notably, it draws inspiration from Gordon Jenkins’ 1953 song, “Crescent City Blues.”

Enduring Success and Recognition

“Folsom Prison Blues” quickly became synonymous with Johnny Cash’s name, cementing its status as one of his signature songs. The recording was also featured on the compilation album “All Aboard the Blue Train” in 1962. Its enduring popularity led Rolling Stone to rank it No. 51 on their list of the 100 greatest country songs of all time in June 2014.

Folsom Prison Performance and Chart Success

An Unforgettable Moment

In 1968, Johnny Cash delivered a historic live performance of “Folsom Prison Blues” to a captivated audience of inmates at Folsom State Prison. This extraordinary event was captured and released as the live album “At Folsom Prison” in the same year, under Columbia Records. The powerful rendition of the song struck a chord with listeners and resonated deeply within the walls of the prison.

Chart-Topping Success

The live version of “Folsom Prison Blues” soared to the top of the country music charts, reaching No. 1. It also made an impact on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 32 in 1968. The song’s success extended beyond the charts, as it won the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, at the 11th Annual Grammy Awards in 1969.

The Story Behind the Lyrics

Creative Inspiration

The lyrics of “Folsom Prison Blues” were sparked by Johnny Cash’s viewing of the film “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison” (1951) while serving in the United States Air Force in West Germany. Cash revealed that the line “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” was born out of his contemplation of the worst possible reason for taking another person’s life.

Influences and Controversies

It’s worth noting that Cash drew the melody and several lyrics from Gordon Jenkins’ 1953 concept album, “Seven Dreams,” specifically the song “Crescent City Blues.” Initially, Jenkins was not credited for his contributions on the original release by Sun Records. However, following a lawsuit, Cash reached a settlement with Jenkins in the early 1970s, paying approximately $75,000.

Recording Details and Musical Style

Sun Studio Session

The original recording of “Folsom Prison Blues” took place on July 30, 1955, at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Sam Phillips served as the producer, and the accompanying musicians included Cash (vocals, guitar), Luther Perkins (guitar), and Marshall Grant (bass). Notably, there was no drummer present during the session. To mimic the snare drum sound, Cash ingeniously inserted a piece of paper, such as a dollar bill, under the guitar strings and strummed the snare rhythm on his guitar.

Genre and Musical Influence

The sound of “Folsom Prison Blues” encompasses elements of country, rockabilly, and rock and roll. It showcases Cash’s distinctive blend of storytelling and raw emotion, captivating audiences with its infectious rhythm and powerful lyrics. The song’s genre-defying nature contributes to its enduring appeal across different musical landscapes.


“Folsom Prison Blues” stands as a testament to Johnny Cash’s talent and creativity. Its impact on both the music industry and the hearts of listeners remains undeniable. From its origins as a single to its iconic live rendition at Folsom State Prison, this song continues to resonate with its authenticity and timeless storytelling. Johnny Cash’s legacy lives on through “Folsom Prison Blues,” forever etching his name in the annals of music history.