In 1968, revolutionary, genre-defying artist Johnny Cash crooned, “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.”
On July 20, 1968, Cash went No. 1 on the country music charts with one of the most popular songs of his entire career, “Folson Prison Blues.” It was the live version of the country track that would soon be the first track on the “At Folsom Prison” album.
He had previously released the song on his debut album, “With His Hot and Blue Guitar” in 1955. The song charted at No. 4 on the country radio airplay chart at the time.
Johnny Cash decided to breathe new life into the leading track, showcasing his unique talents as a true, unique artist. He showed up at the Folsom State Prison in California on January 13, 1968.
He played two sets at the prison. Some of the songs had June Carter Cash accompanying him. He also brought along bassist Marshall Grant, guitarist Luther Perkins, and the drummer WS “Fluke” Holland.
“John had a real feeling for the down and out, for the prisoners. For anybody like that. He came from very humble beginnings in Arkansas. So even though he acquired a lot of things in life, he still felt for these people and he made it very obvious, too. He was so real with it. And that’s what brought him to prisons. And a lot of them turned their lives around because of our willingness to go entertain them that told them that we cared,” bassist Marshall Grant said to Rolling Stone Country.
The live version of “Folsom Prison Blues” offers a different kind of listening experience. The crowd noise, which was authentic reactions added after the fact, create an exhilarating experience.
As it turns out, this experience would help reveal Johnny Cash to the world in an all-new light. Both “At Folsom Prison” and “San Quentin” launched him to stardom.
Meaning Behind the Performance
Johnny Cash’s song remained No. 1 for about four weeks and generated continuous interest in the outlaw singer.
Cash was adamant about the prison reform movement. He regularly performed for inmates in jail, doing about 12 shows a year. Most of the shows were for free and were mostly in San Quentin or Folsom.
“I don’t see anything good come out of prison. You put them in like animals and tear out the souls and guts of them, and let them out worse than they went in,” Cash once said, according to Song Facts.
He came up with the most famous line of the song, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” He was trying to figure out the worse reason for killing another person and admitted “it did come to mind quite easily, though.” He watched the movie “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison” while he was in West Germany serving in the U.S. Air Force.