Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sun Records: Folsom Prison Blues

What do Eldridge Cleaver, Charles Manson, Timothy Leary, Rick James, and Johnny Cash have in common? They all spent time in Folsom State Prison; however, Cash’s time was limited to two concerts – one in 1966 and the other in 1968. While Johnny Cash, based on the song “Folsom Prison Blues,” gained a reputation of being an ex-con, he never was a prisoner. He had on occasion spent a night in jail on a variety of charges, but never was the hardened criminal as portrayed in this Sun recording from December 1955.

The original version of the song with the Tennessee Two was actually a flip side to the intended hit of “So Doggone Lonesome”; however, both got airplay and both peaked on the country charts at #4. He revisited the song during his second performance at Folsom State Prison in 1968 and this live recording crossed over to the pop charts at #32. It was a number one country record as well.

While it may not be the perfect country song as it doesn’t mention trucks and getting drunk, “Folsom Prison Blues” does include prison, trains, and mama. Guns, which are not listed on David Allan Coe’s and Steve Goodman’s list of perfect country song elements, are also found on “Folsom Prison Blues.”

One of the most powerful lyrics in the song is “I shot a man in Reno – just to watch him die.” It has been said that Cash picked this line as he wanted to have the most despicable reason to kill a man and that the thought of killing someone just to see him die was about as low as one could go. When the live version was released in 1968, prisoners’ cat calls were later added after this line of the song. The prisoners did not actually react to the verse for fear of reprisal from the guards.

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