Composer: Johnny Cash
Inspired by the Johnny Cash version
"Folsom Prison Blues" is a song written 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 would continue 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 #1 hit on the country music charts in 1968. Cash took the song from a 1953 Gorden Jenkin's song featuring Beverly Maher "Crescent City Blues".
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). The song was released as a single with another song recorded at the same session, "So Doggone Lonesome". Early in 1956, both sides reached #4 on the Billboard C&W Best Sellers chart.
Live recording, 1968
Cash included the song, considered one of his signature songs, in his repertoire for decades. Cash performed the song at Folsom Prison itself on January 13, 1968, and this version was eventually released on the At Folsom Prison album the same year. That opening song is more up-tempo than the Sun studio 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. A special on the Walk the Line DVD indicates that the prisoners were careful not to cheer 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 Al Casey (guitar) and W.S. Holland (drums).
Released as a single, the live version reached #1 on the country singles chart, and #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 would win in his career, at the 1969 Grammy Awards.
• Charley Pride covered the song on Country Charley Pride (RCA, 1966) before it hit number one on the charts.
• Bob Dylan and The Band covered the song during their 1967 "Basement Tapes" sessions, officially released on November 4, 2014 on The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete.
• Merle Haggard recorded the song on his 1968 Album Mama Tried.
• The International Submarine Band included a recording of the song on their 1968 album Safe at Home.
• Blues musician Slim Harpo released a version as a single in 1968.
• Waylon Jennings covered the song on Jewels in 1968; the same recording appeared on Heartaches By The Number in 1972; and a new version on the album Black on Black in 1982.
• Ernest Tubb covered the song on his 1969 album Saturday Satan Sunday Saint.
• The Charlatans included a covered version of the song on their 1969 album The Charlatans.
• Lester Flatt covered the song in 1971.
• Charlie Feathers covered the song, which was released as a single in 1980.
• Jerry Lee Lewis on his 1981 album, Killer Country
• Willard covered the song on their 1992 album, Steel Mill.
• Brooks & Dunn recorded the song on the 1994 album, Red Hot + Country. The cover featured Cash singing along on the last verse.
• The Reverend Horton Heat covered the song on the 1999 greatest hits album, Holy Roller.
• Keb' Mo' covered it on the 2002 tribute album Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash.
• Everlast covered the song on his 2008 album Love, War and the Ghost of Whitey Ford.
• South African singer Ray Dylan covered the song on his album Goeie Ou Country - Op Aanvraag.
• Psychobilly band The Geezers covered the song probably in 1982 - it appeared in the Big Beat 1983 album "Rockabilly Psychosis And The Garage Disease".
• Outlaw (Terry Pugh) covered the song on his 2012 album Old Friends.
• Adam Young released a cover of the song on his Soundcloud page on March 14, 2015.
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