Thursday, November 17, 2011

24. Johnny Cash, "Folsom Prison Blues" (1955)


This is a country standard now, covered far and wide by artists including Charley Pride, Slim Harpo, and the Reverend Horton Heat, which is some indication right there of the range of its appeal. It's also become one of a handful of Johnny Cash's signature songs, easily my favorite among them, but gosh, he made a whole lot of really great songs. It's closer to American folk idioms, self-consciously drawing on familiar and well-worked traditions of both train and prison songs. But it's so dark, largely the work of the one famously memorable line—"I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die"—that it remains as fresh as ever, decades on. The Sun version is the one I like best, though Cash is one of those artists whose work is worth chasing down in all its forms, live performances, outtakes, alternate versions, even covers and tributes by others, the whole shebang. There's a popular version from the late '60s, recorded live at Folsom Prison itself (and sweetened some in the mix to make it sound more raw and desperate), that's nearly as popular as his first run at it in the mid-'50s. But the original Sun version is such a model of the form, stripped down to essentials, occupying a kind of eerie hush that entirely gets out of the way of the song proper, just Marshall Grant playing bass, Luther Perkins playing a spidery, barbed-wire electric guitar, and Johnny Cash sounding as lonesome and lost as he ever did, which is saying something. The melody is plain and lovely and sticks—if anything, Cash may have been underrated as a songwriter. If the whole thing doesn't last even three minutes, it always sounds good, and the more closely you listen the more it gets under your skin.


  1. Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, and a demi-god to Cash, sang in "T for Texas"

    Gonna buy me a shotgun, long as I am tall
    Gonna shoot pore Thelma just to see her jump and fall

  2. Johnny Cash didn't write this song. He plagiarized most of the lyrics and melody from a song called, "Crescent City Blues" written by Gordon Jenkins.