Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’: Story Behind His First Top 10 Country Hit

by Jim Casey

Johnny Cash scored his first Top 10 single with “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1956. The tune was the sophomore release from his 1957 debut album, Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar!.

While Johnny had a few run-ins with the law during his 71 years on earth, he never served any significant time in prison. However, Johnny felt a certain kinship with prisoners.

Later in his career, he often played concerts for inmates. Of course, the most famous of the aforementioned shows was at California’s Folsom Prison in 1968, but we’ll get that in a minute. First, back to the song.

In 1951, Johnny Cash was in the midst of a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force (1950–1954). He joined the Air Force when the Korean War began, and spent most of his time as a military cryptographer in West Germany.

While overseas, Cash viewed the 1951 film, Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, which inspired him to pen his signature hit about a lonely prisoner tortured by time as he sits in his cell.

Do you hear the train a-comin’ yet? Check out Johnny’s lead verse.

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.

Johnny Cash Records “Folsom Prison Blues” at Sun Studio

When Johnny was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1954, he moved to Memphis, Tenn., and connected with Sun Studio owner/producer Sam Phillips.

After recording his debut release “Hey, Porter” (A-Side) and “Cry! Cry! Cry!” (B-Side) in March 1955 at Sun Studio, Cash recorded “Folsom Prison Blues” (A-Side) and “So Doggone Lonesome (B-Side) in July. Less than five months later on December 15, Johnny released “Folsom Prison Blues” as his second single.

The tune peaked at No. 4 in early 1956 on the Billboard C&W Best Sellers chart, giving Cash his first Top 10 hit.

Of course, the song’s most notorious line is featured in the second verse: But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Johnny later recounted he thought it “was the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that’s what came to mind.”

Listen to Johnny’s commanding baritone below . . . and let that lonesome whistle blow your blues away.

Johnny Cash Goes Live at Folsom Prison

On Jan. 13, 1968, Johnny Cash recorded a live album at California’s Folsom Prison. A new version of his 1956 hit, “Folsom Prison Blues,” complete with screaming inmates in the background, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1968. The new version became Cash’s first No. 1 single in four years.

The album, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, also peaked at No. 1 and won the CMA Award for Album of the Year.

Need the screams? We’ve got them.

Craving More Prison Songs?

In addition to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” you can spend your time doing time with these famous prison songs.