Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
Johnny Cash performs at Folsom Prison in 1968.
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Folsom Prison Blues
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rollin’ ’round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine
Since, I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison
And time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a-rollin’
On down to San Antone
When I was just a baby
My Mama told me, son
Always be a good boy
Don’t ever play with guns
But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowin’
I hang my head and cry
I bet there’s rich folks eatin’
In a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee
And smokin’ big cigars
But I know I had it comin’
I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a-movin’
And that’s what tortures me
Well, if they freed me from this prison
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move out over a little
Farther down the line
Far from Folsom Prison
That’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle
Blow my blues away
Written by Johnny Cash • Copyright © BMG Rights Management US, LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. Included here for educational use only.
On January 13, 1968, Johnny Cash recorded a live concert at Folsom Prison in California. Back in the early 1950s, while serving in the Air Force and stationed in Germany, Cash had seen a documentary on life inside the prison. This inspired him to write the song “Folsom Prison Blues,” with its haunting lines, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” He included it on his debut album, With His Hot and Blue Guitar, in 1957, and began dreaming of some day playing the song live for the inmates there. In 1968, after a personnel shake up at his recording label, Cash pitched the idea to a new producer. He was enthusiastic, so the record label contacted both San Quentin and Folsom prisons. Folsom responded first and the plans for a live concert went into motion. The band set up a two-day rehearsal nearby, along with Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and June Carter.
The day before the concert was to take place, a prison chaplain approached Cash, asking him if he would take the time to listen to a song recorded by a Folsom inmate. The chaplain thought that if he could mention hearing the song while on stage, it would touch the inmate, named Glen Sherley, who was serving a 5-to-life sentence for burglary. Upon hearing “Greystone Chapel,” Cash was so enamored with the song that he resolved to perform it live as part of the show.
The set list mixed songs of prison life with humor and despair. While remixed in the studio to sound rowdy and responsive to any lines about prison, the inmates were actually well behaved during the concert, wary of losing the privilege. Two concerts were recorded that day, but the second lacked the same energy, and only two songs from that session made it onto the final record. Released just four months after the concert, Live at Folsom Prison reached No. 1 on the country charts and was a huge pop crossover. It reignited Cash’s career after it had stalled due to his own increased drug use. He married Carter later that year, and ABC offered Cash his own television show after the success of the live album. In 2003, the Library of Congress included it in its 50 recordings to be added to the National Registry of Music.
Cash said: “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”
Text from The Writer’s Almanac. Included here for educational use only.