Johnny Cash

Folsom Prison Blues

Composed by Johnny Cash

Song Review by

The remarkable accomplishment of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" is its success in eliciting sympathy for the lonely, cold-hearted prisoner who "shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." Riding a chugga-chugga train rhythm, the song gives voice to the frustrations of a condemned man sentenced to life in prison. Recorded for Sun records, the song was in the country Top Five in 1956, though Cash had written it while in the Air Force somewhere before 1954. "Folsom Prison Blues" follows the traditional symbol of the train whistle, as Hank Williams wrote about in "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle" (1951). That song tracks a man following the siren call of the rails, finding trouble along the way, and getting sent to jail: "All alone I bear the shame/I'm a number, not a name/I heard that lonesome whistle blow" (Williams/Davis). Cash's protagonist is already locked away, imagining life going on outside the prison walls: "I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car/They're probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars/But I know I had it coming, I know I can't be free/But those people keep on moving/And that's what tortures me." As the audience often confuses the singer with the song, "Folsom Prison Blues" was one of the tunes that -- along with his status as a musician that fell in between rockabilly, folk, and country genres -- led to Cash's reputation as a country music outlaw, the "Man in Black" who wrote about society's dispossessed castaways. "Folsom Prison Blues" rightly takes its place among the folk/country lexicon of prison songs. As such, it has become folk/country classic, a standard with countless cover versions. Among the best: Flatt and Scruggs play up the song's rowdy bluegrass elements on the 1996-released 1964-1969, Plus box set. On the Genuine Basement Tapes (1992 release), Bob Dylan and the Band inject some of the Highway 61 Revisited-like blues; and Jerry Reed Lord, Mr. Ford (1973) offers an unexpectedly funky reading of the song -- if ever there was such a thing as country-funk, it would have to sound something like this cross between the Bar-Kays and Waylon Jennings. But the finest renditions of the "Folsom Prison Blues" remain Cash's own live recordings from 1968's At Folsom Prison and 1969's At San Quentin. These highly energized, in-prison performances feature prisoners hooting in approval at that chilling line "But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die."

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
With His Hot and Blue Guitar 1957 Snapper
All Aboard the Blue Train 1962 Get Back Records
No Image 1968 CSP Records
Showtime 1969 Bellaphon Records
No Image 1970
No Image 1971 CBS Records 2:45
Sunday Morning Coming Down 1972 DCC Compact Classics 2:47
This Is Johnny Cash 1973 Special Music
No Image 1976
20 Foot-Tappin' Greats 1978 Sony Music Distribution
No Image 1981 CBS Records
No Image 1984
Various Artists
Pickwick
Up Through the Years, 1955-1957 1986 Bear Family Records 2:54
The Sun Story [Rhino] 1987
Various Artists
Rhino / Rhino/Warner Bros. 2:50
Classic Cash: Hall of Fame Series 1988 Mercury 2:44
Country U.S.A.: 1968 1989
Various Artists
Time/Life Music
No Image 1990 Satellite Sounds
The Man in Black: 1959-1962 1991 Bear Family Records 2:54
Sun's Greatest Hits [RCA] 1992
Various Artists
RCA 2:47
The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983 1992 Sony Music Distribution 2:41
Country Music Classics, Vol. 18 (1965-70) 1993
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution 2:36
No Image 1994
Various Artists
IMC (Netherlands)
Grammy's Greatest Country, Vol. 1 1994
Various Artists
Atlantic 2:07
The Man in Black: Definitive Collection 1994 Commercial Sales / Concept / Sony Music Distribution 2:45
Super Hits 1994 Sony Music Distribution / Sbme Special Mkts. / Song BMG Music Entertainment 2:49
The Sun Records Collection [Rhino] 1994
Various Artists
Rhino 2:49
Jailhouse Rock [Sony] 1995
Various Artists
Risky Business / Sony Music Distribution 2:47
Greatest Hits: Finest Performances 1995 Sun Record Company 2:52
America's Favorites 1995
Various Artists
Bransounds 2:46
Nashville at Newport 1995
Various Artists
Vanguard 1:54
Country Classics [Drive Archive] 1995
Various Artists
Drive Archive
Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead 1995
Original Soundtrack
A&M 2:46
Touch This Country 1995
Various Artists
Drive Archive 2:44
Ultimate 1996 Bransounds 2:47
Golden Hits 1996 ITC Masters
The Man in Black: 1963-1969 1996 Bear Family Records 1:53
Outlaws Super Hits 1996
Various Artists
Legacy 2:47
Die Hard Country 1996
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution
The Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 1996
Various Artists
Columbia 3:00
The Very Best of Johnny Cash 1996 Charly Records 2:49
The  Hits [1997] 1997 Polygram 2:44
Country Superstars 16 Golden Hits 1997
Various Artists
Galaxy Music 1:43
The Essential Country Collection [Emporio] 1997
Various Artists
Emporio 2:43
Mega Country, Vol. 3 1998
Various Artists
Pmf
Hot Tracks: Train Super Hits 1998
Various Artists
Epic / Sony Music Distribution 2:47
Ring of Fire 1998 Goldies 2:44
No Image 1998 Bcd
There You Go 1998 Cleopatra
Classic Country: Legendary Country 1998
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 2:44
I Walk the Line: The Very Best of Johnny Cash 1999 Collectables 2:46
Man in Black: His Greatest Hits 1999 Columbia / Columbia/Legacy 2:44
Great 1999 Festival Records 2:50
Exposed Roots: Best of Alt. Country 1999
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution 2:49
No Image 1999 Hallmark Recordings
The Essential Sun Collection 1999 Recall (UK) 2:30
Showtime/Original Golden Hits, Vol. 3 1999 Collectables 2:51
The Ultimate Grammy Box: From the Recording Academy's Collection 1999
Various Artists
Sony Music Distribution 2:43
Country: The Life, Times & Music Series 1999
Various Artists
Friedman Fairgfax 2:45
Greatest Hits of Johnny Cash, Vol. 1 2000 Echo Bridge Home Entertainment 2:54
Gold Collection [Retro] 2000 Retro Music 2:50
Committed 2000
Original Soundtrack
Saidera Records
Murder 2000 Columbia 2:51
The Legend at His Best: Ultimate Box Set & Autobiography 2000 Collectables 2:46
Best of the Sun Years [Repetoire] 2000 Repertoire
The Sun Years, Vol. 1 2000 Original Sun Recordings (Italy) 2:51
A Living Legend 2000 Teevee Records 2:46
Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes 2000
Various Artists
Intercontinental Records 2:50
Best of the Best 2000 Federal Records 2:46
Sun Records Country Legends 2000
Various Artists
Edel America Records / Edeltone 2:46
The EP Collection 2000 See For Miles Records 2:50
Very Best of Johnny Cash, Vol. 1 2000 Collectables 2:46
Simply the Best 2001 Columbia / Sony/Columbia 2:42
Sun Records: The Definitive Hits, Vol. 1 2001
Various Artists
Collectables 2:49
Best of Johnny Cash [Spectrum] 2001 Spectrum Music
The Very Best of the Sun Years 2001 Metro / Metro 2:48
Country Anthems 2001
Various Artists
Masters / Intercontinental Records 2:50
Country Heat Classic 2001
Various Artists
Sony BMG 2:47
Sun Records 50th Anniversary Edition 2001 Sun Record Company 2:49
Greatest Hits: Best of the Best Gold 2001 Gemini
That's Country [Golden Stars] 2001
Various Artists
Golden Stars 2:42
His Sun Years 2001 Snapper 2:47
The Legends Collection, Vol. 1 2001 Dressed To Kill 2:49
Wanted Man: The Very Best of Johnny Cash 2002 Sony Music Distribution 2:51
The Essential Johnny Cash 2002 Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 2:44
Country Gold [Columbia River] 2002
Various Artists
Columbia River Entertainment Group 2:46
At Town Hall Party 1958-1959 2002 Bear Family Records
No Image 2002
Various Artists
Charly Records
The Legend of Johnny Cash: The First Original Hits 2002 K-Tel Distribution 2:49
Johnny Cash Sings His Best [Double Disc] 2002 Teevee Records 2:46
At Folsom Prison/At San Quentin/America 2002 Legacy / Columbia 2:42
20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Johnny Cash 2002 Mercury 2:47
A Heart of a Legend 2002 Madacy Distribution 2:47
At Madison Square Garden 2002 Sony Music Distribution 3:34
Elite: Country 2002
Various Artists
Rajon Entertainment Pty Ltd.
Sun Records 50th Anniversary Box 2002
Various Artists
Varèse Sarabande 2:50
Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams 2003 Varèse Sarabande / Varese 2:50
I Walk the Line [Music Media] 2003 Music Media (Germany) / Epic 2:46
A Concert Behind Prison Walls 2003 Eagle Records 2:03
I Walk the Line and Other Hits 2003 Flashback Records / Rhino Flashback 2:49
The Sun Records Years 2003 Fruit Tree 2:48
Sings His Best 2004 Teevee Records 2:45
Platinum & Gold Collection 2004 BMG Heritage 2:50
Johnny Cash Collection [Sun] 2004 Record Sales / Sun Record Company 2:50
Cash Sings Cash 2004 Varèse Vintage / Varèse Sarabande 2:49
The Very Best of Country [Nascente] 2004
Various Artists
Nascente
Country Legend [Madacy] 2004 Madacy Distribution / Madacy 2:47
Hayride Anthology 2004 Cleopatra 2:27
Lonesome in Black: The Legendary Sun Recordings 2004 Metro
Nashville Honky Tonk 2004
Various Artists
Northquest 2:48
Essential Rock 'N' Roll, Vol. 1 2004
Various Artists
Laserlight 2:49
This Is Gold [Box] 2004 This Is Gold 2:49
Orby Records Spotlights Johnny Cash 2004 Orbison Records 2:49
No Image 2004 Wonderful Music Of
Country Legends 2004 Green Hill Productions 2:37
Classic Country: Kings of Country 2005
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 2:49
Bigger Than Life Collection 2005 Madacy Distribution / Madacy 2:47
Sun Records Collection [Pazzazz] 2005
Various Artists
Pazzazz 2:46
Country: The Essential Album 2005
Various Artists
Essential Records
The Original Sun Albums: Complete Collection 2005 Varèse Sarabande 2:51
Train of Love 2005 Go. 2:47
Country Legends [Country Legends] 2005 Country Legends
The Man in Black [American Legends] 2005 American Legends / Allegro Corporation 2:42
World of Country and Western 2005
Various Artists
ZYX Music 2:48
Country Legend [Disky #1] 2005 Disky
Best of Sun Records, Vol. 1 2005
Various Artists
Pazzazz 2:46
I Walk the Line: Country Legends 2005 Belly Media
The Legend of Johnny Cash 2005 Hip-O / Island Def Jam Music Group 2:49
Live from Austin TX 2005 New West 2:45
The Complete Sun Recordings 1955-1958 2005 Time/Life Music 2:49
Traveling Cash: An Imaginary Journey 2006 Bear Family Records
Country Hit Parade: Outlaw Prison: Most Wanted Hits 2006
Various Artists
Direct Source 2:51
10 Top 10's 2006 Compendia Music Group 2:51
Colour Collection 2006 Universal Distribution 2:45
Country Hit Parade 2006 Direct Source 2:50
Mastercuts 2006 Mastercuts 2:48
Forever Johnny Cash 2006 Madacy Distribution / Madacy 2:47
Best of the Sun Years [Charly] 2007 Charly Records / Snapper 2:47
The Greatest Country Hits of 1956 2007
Various Artists
Acrobat 2:51
All Aboard the Blue Train/Original Sun Sound of Johnny Cash/Sings Hank Williams 2007 Snapper 2:49
Superstars of Country [Time Life] 2007
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 2:44
Love, God, Murder, Life [4 CD] 2007 Columbia 2:51
Discover Johnny Cash 2007 Legacy 2:43
At San Quentin/Orange Blossom Special 2008 Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 4:23
Original Greatest Hits 2008 Time/Life Music 2:36
Greatest Hits [Steel Box Collection] 2008 Commercial Canada / Sony Music Distribution 2:43
Best of Johnny Cash [Sony/BMG] 2008 Legacy 2:47
Ultimate Johnny Cash Collection 2008 Collectables 2:46
Sun Rockabilly Meltdown 2009
Various Artists
Charly Records / Snapper 2:28
Original Sun Singles '55-'58 2009 Charly Records 2:49
The Roots of Gram Parsons 2009
Various Artists
Snapper 2:47
The Music of Johnny Cash 2009 Columbia / Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 2:50
No Image 2009
Various Artists
Commercial Canada 2:42
Go West
Various Artists
Drive (import) 2:48
No Image Phantom
No Image Sun Record Company
The Fabulous Johnny Cash [EGB] EGB 2:49
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