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.
- Johnny Cash
In 1953 an aspiring young musician named John Cash watched a movie called "Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison," a melodramatic 1951 film about the clash between a hardened but noble inmate and a sadistic warden at California's maximum-security Folsom Prison. The movie inspired Cash to write "Folsom Prison Blues", a song about an inmate in Folsom Prison who hears a train passing by the prison and imagines what it would be like to be a free man. Cash made a studio recording of the song, which scored a modest hit on the country charts, climbing as high as #4 in 1956.
But if the story had ended there, I probably wouldn't be writing this node. Let us fast forward to 1968. In this tumultuous year at the height of the Vietnam War-era protests, country music was struggling to stay relevant. Cash's career seemed to be on the decline as he was increasingly typecast as a one-dimensional singer of old-fashioned hillbilly songs from an earlier era. On January 13, 1968, over the misgivings of his record company, against the advice of his manager, and despite the fears of the wardens, Cash pressed ahead with his plan to play a live concert at Folsom in front of a crowd of maximum-security inmates.
Cash opened his set with his 1956 hit, "Folsom Prison Blues," and proceeded to play one of the greatest live concerts ever recorded. The album that resulted, At Folsom Prison, was a huge crossover hit, igniting a huge boom for the country music industry and reviving Cash's career, spurring him on to ever greater heights of popularity from which he never looked back. In contrast to his 1956 version, the 1968 single version of "Folsom Prison Blues" quickly rose to #1 and stayed on the charts for 18 weeks.
It is this 1968 version of the song that has gone on to become one of the most iconic songs in American popular music - iconic of the tragic style of country music, iconic of the heartache-filled year it was recorded, and iconic of Cash's own outlaw image. The song appears on just about every Cash compilation album ever issued, and if you could only listen to one Cash song your whole life, this would be it.
It is ultimately very difficult to describe the power of this song to those who have not heard it. Part of it is Cash's obvious energy and enthusiasm and the call and response between the music and the breathless cheers of the crowd. The song also begins with one of the greatest opening lines ever, and one that will never appear in a cover: that honest, gravelly voice saying, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash", the phrase that would go on to become his trademark introduction for the rest of his career.
But I suppose what truly makes the song great is knowing that this song about the plight of a prisoner in Folsom Prison is actually being heard by Folsom prisoners, and you can even hear them cheering. It's one of those rare, amazing moments when life and art meet face to face. When Cash utters that starkest of lines, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," you know he was speaking to some of the only people in the world who could fully comprehend what that sentence means - as thrilling, and chilling, a moment as was ever put to wax.
In fact, so powerful and convincing is Cash's performance, that the song inspired a myth that Cash actually did time in Folsom, which I suppose gets right at the heart of Cash's talent - his ability to convey utter honesty and sincerity and to connect directly with the lives of ordinary people. But as much as "Folsom Prison Blues" captured the feeling of the prisoners in the audience, it also captured something of Cash's own complicated character - the intersection of sin, regret, and repentance that mapped so well onto the arc of Cash's own life. Cash had never actually done time in a prison, but he had constructed prisons for himself in his own mind that were no less confining, as do we all.