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Johnny Cash And The Story Behind 'Folsom Prison Blues'

"Folsom Prison Blues" is a country/rockabilly song that expresses the laments of a fictional inmate at Folsom Prison who wishes he could ride a nearby train away from his confinement and to San Antonio. Johnny Cash wrote the song in 1953 while stationed in Germany serving in the Air Force. Cash was inspired to pen the song after seeing the Hollywood drama film “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.”

In 1954 Cash recorded the song at Sun Records, the Memphis legendary music studio owned and operated by Sam Phillips. Phillips discovered and recorded some of America’s more revolutionary talent including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Howling Wolf.

Folsom Prison Blues was Cash’s second record released from Sun and with Luther Perkins ear catching guitar licks it became a hit, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Country Western Best Sellers chart.

Cash’s first prison performance occurred in 1957 when he performed for inmates at Huntsville State Prison. The favorable response inspires the country legend to perform at more prisons through the years.

On January 13th 1968 Johnny Cash recorded a concert at Folsom Prison for the inmates. Four months later “At Folsom Prison” was released. It hit number one on the Country Music charts and cracked the top 15 for the national charts. As a single, "Folsom Prison Blues" was a top 40 hit. This new version of Cash’s old song was a little more uptempo and was punctuated with hollers of approval from the incarcerated.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi