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Folsom Prison Blues

Folsom Prison Blues


by Johnny Cash


Before we dive into what the lyrics of the song mean, we first should tell you that "Folsom Prison Blues" is by no means a completely original work of songwriting genius. In fact, the lyrics and music were substantially ripped off from an earlier track called "Crescent City Blues" that was written and arranged by Gordon Jenkins, sung by Beverly Mahr, and released in 1953. Just to give you an idea of how thoroughly Cash was "inspired" by "Crescent City Blues," this website shows you a side-by-side comparison of the two sets of lyrics and the similarities are blatant, especially in the final verses which have essentially the same exact words.

The Jenkins song:

When I was just a baby, my mama told me, "Sue,
When you're grown up I want that you should go and see and do."
But I'm stuck in Crescent City just watching life mosey by
When I hear that whistle blowin', I hang my head and cry.

The Cash song:

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.

While the blatant stealing of music from black blues artists by white rock n' roll guys in the pre-Civil Rights era (ahem, Elvis) was a common act, it is surprising to note that Johnny Cash got away with his fast one on "Folsom Prison Blues" for so long, considering that Jenkins was white and relatively famous. When the song was re-released in the sixties, Jenkins finally spoke up and Cash paid him a $75,000 settlement for stealing his tune. As Cash later told the Los Angeles Times, he was at the very beginning of his career when he penned the song and had no idea how famous it would one day become. "At the time, I really had no idea I would be a professional recording artist; I wasn't trying to rip anybody off. So when I later went to Sun to record the song, I told Sam Phillips that I rewrote an old song to make my song, and that was that. Sometime later I met up with Gordon Jenkins and we talked about what had happened, and everything was right."

Significantly plagiarized or not, Cash certainly put his own unique stamp on the song, the most obvious being the change of protagonist from a bored, small town girl to a despondent prison inmate, and the Cash version is arguably much more powerful. Not only that, but he sped up the original tune substantially and it's this air of urgency and defeat that characterizes his version most strongly.

What stands out in Cash's lyrics to "Folsom Prison Blues" is the constant movement evoked by the words. The interplay of motion (the train) with stasis (the prison) becomes the central tension in the song and perfectly embodies the paradoxical sensory experiences of a despondent prisoner at the end of his rope.

In poetry, movement is often conveyed by repetition and parallelism, and Cash's lyrics achieve both. Aside from saying the actual word "move" several times throughout the song, Cash constantly brings us back to the central image of the moving train. It's "comin'," "rollin'," with its whistle "a-blowin'" and never stops.

In fact, every part of the song is loaded with gerunds – for the non-grammarians among us, that's a verb conjugated into the present progressive (ending in -ing) to suggest continuous action. The rich folks in the dining car are "eatin," "drinkin," and "smokin," all the while being propelled through space by the motion of the train. Meanwhile, the prisoner is completely stopped and "stuck in Folsom" prison as he hears the enticing freedom of the rolling wheels and blowing whistle. This is all juxtaposed against the prisoner's fixed memories of the past and his horrible crime which he cannot change, as well as his current entrapment behind bars. The only action verbs that comprise his everyday existence are sitting, sleeping, working, and crying, all fairly stationary activities. He exclaims that if he were to ever be freed, the first thing he would do is move away from the prison just like that lucky train. As author Michael Streissguth explains:

"The young poet's work empathized with the prisoner's life as much as a military man or lonely lover could, dwelling on the frustration of freedom denied. Although the line I shot a man in Reno/ Just to watch him die remains the song's most memorable and often raised yelps, grins, and chuckles among his audiences, the complexities of the song is not in its violence or even its repentance (two qualities so linked to Cash's image today), but rather in its loneliness and longing to once again move about without shackles. 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."

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