I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
Growing up in a hard-working cotton-farming family in Arkansas in the wake of the Great Depression, Cash knew what it was like to struggle and took pity on the people who did not lead the charmed existence that he and other rock stars and country legends got to enjoy. Along with recording an experimental album called "Bitter Tears," which explored the plight of Native Americans, Cash also had a soft spot for prisoners… and this became the genesis of "Folsom Prison Blues." After all, prisoners are people too.
The story of "Folsom Prison Blues" is really a play in three acts, neatly tracking the course of Johnny Cash's life. The first act tells of the song's original creation, the second of Cash's descent into drugs and depression, and the third of the song's re-release as a live recording and the enormous success that followed.
When he graduated high school, Johnny Cash worked briefly in an auto plant sweeping floors before enlisting in the United States Air Force and getting shipped off to West Germany. During his tenure in Germany, he worked as a radio intercept officer spying on conversations between the Russians, but it was also during this time that he started a band called the Landsberg Barbarians which enabled him to do live shows, teach himself to play the guitar better, and try his hand at songwriting. "We were terrible," he later remembered, "but that Lowenbrau beer will make you feel like you're great. We'd take our instruments to these honky-tonks and play until they threw us out or a fight started. I wrote Folsom Prison Blues in Germany in 1953."
The commanding officer of Cash's unit had the men watch Crane Wilbur's "Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison," a film about the California lockup, which inspired Cash to write his song. Folsom Prison is one of the most famous prisons in the nation, notorious for its harsh conditions and dangerous prisoner population.
The most controversial and memorable line in the song, by far, is: "I shot a man in Reno/ Just to watch him die." As Cash explained in his autobiography, "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. It did come to mind quite easily, though."
In 1955, "Folsom Prison Blues" became the second single Johnny Cash released after signing to Sun Records (the same guys who initially produced Elvis), and though the song cracked the Country Top 5, it did not skyrocket him to fame and fortune. It did, however, receive a very warm welcome and almost cult following from prison inmates across the country. From San Quentin to Sing Sing, inmates wrote Cash tons of fan mail (probably more than the average bear, since what do prisoners do besides write letters?) which hit a soft spot in the singer's heart and sparked his desire to do a prison tour.
End of Act One. The curtain falls and we are left with several years of Intermission. This is usually the time where you get up, get snacks and maybe a beverage, and then eat and drink as fast as you can before the ushers make you return to your seat. In Cash's case, it was a time of decadence and commercial success followed by several years of waning popularity and increasing despair. During the late fifties and early sixties, Cash released several hit singles with Sun Records that shot him into the national spotlight, including "I Walk the Line" and "Home of the Blues," before switching to a more lucrative deal from Columbia Records where he released "Ring of Fire." It was also during this period that Cash got heavily into drugs, mainly amphetamines and barbiturates and his life started spinning out of control.
Curtain rises for the start of Act Two: The Turbulent Years. As his drug habit worsened, Cash's marriage hit the rocks and he started canceling performances, leading to divorce from his first wife, Vivian Liberto, whom he had met while training for the Air Force in Texas. Soon followed the kindling of a new romance with fellow country singer June Carter, whom he had met a few years before through the music business. Act Two closes with a scene in a cave, in which Cash tries to overdose on drugs and passes out on the floor after trying to die, but manages to stay awake long enough to see a dim trail of light and follow it to the cave's mouth. In many ways, Johnny Cash could be considered a tragic American folk hero reminiscent of a Shakespeare character. (In fact, this cave episode reminds us a bit of the storm scene in King Lear in which the maddened King, at the depths of his despair, rages half-naked at the angry sky and demands to know why the world is so cruel.) Cash is then whisked away to rehab with June Carter and her family, leading to a second marriage. Much like his contemporary Bob Dylan, Cash discovers evangelical Christianity (he claims that God helped save him during his trial in the cave) and pulls his life around just in time for 1968. Curtain falls.
Begin Act Three. Backed by the ever-faithful June Carter and her family as well as his original band, The Tennessee Three, Cash launches a prison tour that leads to his most successful album ever. This would never have been possible without the go-ahead from Bob Johnston, the A&R man from Columbia Records who had been put in charge of Cash's material after some internal personnel changes at the label. Johnston was the kind of guy who liked to argue with studio execs and take risks, and when Cash proposed a potentially controversial live album recorded inside a prison, Johnston jumped at the chance. After only two days of rehearsing (and a visit from then-governor Ronald Reagan), the musicians debuted at Folsom Prison in California on January 13, 1968.
The thick cement walls of Folsom Prison were abuzz with excitement while the bands warmed up backstage. After a few moments, MC Hugh Cherry took the stage to introduce Cash's opening acts: Carl Perkins ("Blue Suede Shoes") and The Statler Brothers ("Flowers on the Wall," "This Old House"). Enter Johnny Cash, dressed in his signature black uniform, addressing the crowd of two thousand with his now-famous opening line, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." The first song he performed, appropriately enough, was "Folsom Prison Blues" which received a huge response from the crowd. The bands recorded fifteen live tracks in all, including several duets between Johnny and June, followed by June reading a poem, and closing with Cash covering a song called "Greystone Chapel" which had been written by prison inmate Glen Sherley. The musicians recorded a second performance right after the first one, but due to their exhaustion only two of those tracks made it onto the final LP.
After four months of studio preparation, in April 1968 the album, At Folsom Prison, was released to nationwide praise. The new live version of "Folsom Prison Blues" steadily climbed the charts to break the Billboard Top 100 and the Country Music Charts. However, the single took a blow when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June of that same year. Radio stations stopped playing it due to the "shot a man in Reno" line, since the nation was still reeling from the assassination and all mention of gunshots briefly became nearly taboo. Under pressure from Columbia, and despite protests from Johnny Cash, Johnston re-released the single without the controversial line and it climbed the charts once again.
Though the majority of Cash's fans have never done any time, Cash believes there is a reason that "Folsom Prison Blues" resonated so strongly with his listeners: "I think prison songs are popular because most of us are living in one little kind of prison or another, and whether we know it or not the words of a song about someone who is actually in a prison speak for a lot of us who might appear not to be, but really are."
Whether we feel trapped by a bad relationship, a boring city, a crappy job, a cramped apartment, or simply some bad decisions we've made, we all know what it feels like to be "prisoners" in our own lives. Cash himself knew deeply what it meant to be a prisoner of drugs, guilt, and depression, and wrote this song as much as catharsis for himself as for his fans. As he said in an interview with the Academy of Achievement: "If you can hold your listener, hold their attention, and you're sure you know what you're doing, and know that you're communicating -- you know, performance is communicating. You've got to communicate. You've got a song you're singing from your gut, you want that audience to feel it in their gut. And you've got to make them think that you're one of them sitting out there with them, too. They've got to be able to relate to what you're doing."