On July 30th, 1955, Johnny Cash stood in a recording studio at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. On that day The Man in Black first recorded the song that would help define his legacy. That day Johnny Cash recorded "Folsom Prison Blues," a song that would go on to revolutionize the music industry.
Celebrate the 67th anniversary of one of Cash’s most iconic songs with us and delve into the story of "Folsom Prison Blues."
The Origins of "Folsom Prison Blues"
In 1953 Cash sat down to watch a movie while serving at the US Air Force base at Landsberg, Bavaria, in West Germany. That movie, Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, would go on to inspire one of the greatest country songs of all time. Two years later, he recorded the song for his debut studio album Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!
Cash recorded "Folsom Prison Blues" on July 30th, 1955 in Memphis, Tennessee.
In those early days at Sun Records the up-and-coming singer was known to hold a piece of paper such as a dollar bill under his guitar strings to imitate the sound of a snare drum, as he could not yet afford a backup drummer.
When he first recorded "Folsom Prison Blues" he was accompanied by Luther Perkins on guitar and Marshall Grant on bass. Sam Phillips produced the song.
Playing Live at Folsom Prison
"Folsom Prison Blues" really hit its stride when Cash performed for a crowd of inmates at Folsom State Prison for his 1968 album, recorded live, At Folsom Prison.
While fans of the live album will catch the chorus of cheering after the line "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," these cheers were actually added in post-production. During the show, many inmates were hesitant to cheer at any of Cash’s comments about the prison itself, fearing reprisal from the guards.
At Folsom Prison was released in May 1968. "Folsom Prison Blues" hit the Billboard Hot 100 on May 25th, and the Billboard Country Charts a week later. The album won two GRAMMY awards for Johnny Cash. After it went triple platinum in 2003, the Library of Congress chose At Folsom Prison for the National Recording Registry.
A Legacy of Prison Reform Advocacy
Johnny Cash's live album recorded at Folsom Prison, alongside his album recorded live at San Quintin, would become some of the most influential albums of the 60s and a lasting part of the singer's legacy.
Cash's powerful music became part of a lifelong campaign for prison reform. "He thought the prison system was broken because it wasn't fixing anyone," Mark Stielper, the Cash family's historian and friend, said of The Man in Black.
Cash used his music to help bring the need for prison reform to mainstream awareness. His influence brought the debate over prison reform to the offices of some of the most powerful politicians in the land, such as President Nixon. In the summer of 1972, he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on national penitentiaries.
While Cash's goals for prison reform have yet to be realized, the Man in Black will always be remembered for bringing the cause to public awareness and raising his powerful voice for the underdog.