Certain Songs #814: Johnny Cash – “Folsom Prison Blues”

Album: The Complete Sun Masters
Year: 1955

Johnny Cash was, of course, a towering figure in American music, a guy who was somehow able to reinvent his career more than once without ever straying very far from who he was.

As part of his first act, he was part of Sun Records proto-everything “Million Dollar Quartet,” along with other pikers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and some guy named Elvis. It was at Sun where he wrote and recorded such classic songs as “I Walk The Line,” “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “Big River” and of course, “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Written by the point of view of a guy presumably on death row, “Folsom Prison Blues” starts as the sound of an oncoming train shakes him into contemplating his circumstances.

I hear the train a comin’
It’s rolling 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

In the 1980s and 1990s, when the bluenoses were all up in arms about the evils of rap lyrics, my mind always went back to the classic second verse of “Folsom Prison Blues,” and I wondered if there wasn’t perhaps a racial component to their arms upping.

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 blowing
I hang my head and cry…

SPOILER ALERT: of course there was.

With lead guitarist Luther Perkins making the sound of the train whistle as it taunts the prisoners while rolling steadily on by, “Folsom Prison Blues” is as powerful and unstoppable as the train itself.

I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee
And smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming
I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a movin’
And that’s what tortures me…

That’s some pretty bleak shit, because the consequences of the decision he made — shooting a guy just to watch him die is about as bad as it gets — is going to be triggered every single time a train passes that prison for the rest of his life. That’s punishment.

“Folsom Prison Blues”

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