The Trail

Lyrics to Folsom Prison Blues By Johnny Cash

12/6/2023 | By Johnny Cash Trail| Johnny Cash

Folsom Prison Blues was written and first recorded by Johnny Cash in 1955. It's one of Cash's most iconic songs and has a history as interesting as the Man in Black himself. 

When J.R. Cash was serving in the United States Air Force, he saw a 1950s film called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison while stationed in West Germany. The film inspired Cash to pen the lyrics to "Folsom Prison Blues."

Lyrics to Folsom Prison Blues  

By Johnny Cash

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

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

I bet there's rich folks eatin' 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

Well, if they freed me from this prison, if that railroad train was mine
I bet I'd move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that's where I want to stay
And I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away

What Inspired the Lyrics to Folsom Prison Blues?

The 1950s film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, with themes of prison violence, reform, and redemption, may have been the primary influence for Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," but it wasn't the only inspiration for the song that cemented Cash's outlaw reputation.

Cash borrowed from the lyrics and melody of a Gordon Jenkins song, "Crescent City Blues," which was released in 1953. 

I see the rich folks eatin' in that fancy dining car
They're probably having pheasant breast and eastern caviar
Now I ain't crying envy and I ain't crying me
It's just that they get to see things that I've never seen 

The similarities in lyrics and melody would later lead to a lawsuit. Cash eventually paid a settlement to Jenkins in the 1970s.

But I Shot a Man in Reno Just to Watch Him Die

One of the most controversial and memorable lines in "Folsom Prison Blues" came straight from Cash.

When asked how he came up with the line, "But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," Cash recounts: 

"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."

The controversy around these lyrics comes not from the violence but from jurisdictional confusion, which has baffled listeners since its 1955 release. 

If you shot a man in Reno, why would you end up in a California prison? 

Cash, who was born in Arkansas and stationed in West Germany when he wrote the song, probably did not consider the jurisdictional ramifications of his lyrics. In fact, he's reportedly been quoted as saying he put the line in because it was poetic. However, that hasn't stopped law aficionados from weighing in on some of the reasons why someone may end up in Folsom Prison in California after committing a murder in neighboring Nevada.

Explanations include:

  • Yes, he shot a man in Reno, but he's serving time in Folsom Prison for an unrelated crime
  • He was sent to a Nevada prison but was interstate transferred to Folsom
  • He shot a man in Nevada but was standing on the California side of the state line when he did it
  • He shot a man in the town of Reno Junction, CA

Accurate or not, it hasn't stopped Folsom Prison Blues from becoming one of Cash's signature and most loved songs.

Where Was "Folsom Prison Blues" Recorded?

Cash first recorded Folsom Prison Blues at Sam Phillips Sun Records studio in Memphis, TN. 

After his military service, Cash settled in Memphis, TN, with his first wife, Vivian Liberte, to pursue a musical career. He performed in county fairs and local events with bandmates Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant. 

In 1954, Sun Records artist Elvis Presley was "tearing up the airwaves," recounts Cash in Cash: The Autobiography. Despite meeting Presley after a show and striking up a conversation about music, Cash didn't ask for an introduction to Sam Phillips. 

"I wanted to make it on my own devices, and that's how I set about doing it," said Cash.

Cash pitched himself to the Sun Records exec and was repeatedly rebuffed by Phillips, who reportedly told him to "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell."

Phillips eventually gave Cash and his band a chance, and the rest is history. 

The Man in Black recorded Folsom Prison Blues at the Sun Studio on July 30, 1955. Early in 1956, the song reached No. 4 on the Billboard Country and Western Best Sellers chart.

Cash's next recording of Folsom Prison Blues was one for the history books.

By the 1960s, Cash's career was stalling. His hard-partying ways and outlaw reputation had led to a divorce from his first wife and hesitancy from venues to book the musician. Would he cancel or show up too drunk to perform? 

Cash even got banned from the Grand Ol Opry after kicking out the stage lights.

But a new marriage to singer June Carter Cash in 1967 began Cash's redemption story as he slowly began to overcome addictions and refocus on his career. Cash had an idea to record a live album at a prison, and Folsom Prison agreed to let the Man in Black do just that.

On January 13, 1968, Johnny Cash opened his live recorded show in front of Folsom inmates and guards with the song "Folsom Prison Blues."

How Did Inmates Respond to the Lyrics to Folsom Prison Blues?

In the recording Live at Folsom Prison, inmates cheer rowdily at the lyrics, "But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die."

According to a special feature on the 2005 Walk the Line movie, the prisoners at Folsom that day avoided cheering at this or any of Cash's comments about the prison itself, as they feared reprisal from prison guards. 

The cheering from the inmates was added in post-production. 

Folsom Prison Blues Revived Cash's Career

The release of the Live at Folsom Prison album featuring "Folsom Prison Blues" was a hit that revived Cash's career in 1968. He recalled, "That's where things really got started for me again."

The song's live version hit #1 on the country singles chart and won Cash a Grammy Award in 1969. The popularity of the live Folsom Prison album led ABC to offer Cash his own TV show. Cash went on to star on TV, in movies, and to record music until he died in 2003. 

Now you know the lyrics to Folsom Prison Blues, take a deeper dive into the song's history and impact with The Real Story Behind Johnny Cash and Folsom Prison Blues, then follow it up with Behind the Bars of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Story

Discover how the City of Folsom is honoring the legacy of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues and its impact on the community with the Johnny Cash Trail.