Johnny Cash

Folsom Prison Blues

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 Org Music 2:51
All Aboard the Blue Train 1962 Get Back Records
I Walk the Line 1964 Friday Music
No Image 1968 CSP Records
No Image 1969 Sun Record Company
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 1979 Sun Record Company
No Image 1981 CBS Records
No Image 1984
Various Artists
Pickwick
Legends [DCC] 1986
Various Artists
MCA 0:00
The Sun Story [Rhino] 1987
Various Artists
Rhino / Warner Bros. 2:50
1955-1958 Recordings 1988 Charly Records 2:48
Country U.S.A.: 1968 1989
Various Artists
Time / Life Music
The Man in Black: 1954-1958 1990 Bear Family Records 2:50
The Sun Years [Rhino] 1990 Rhino 2:47
The Man in Black: 1959-1962 1991 Bear Family Records 2:54
Collection [Castle] 1992 Castle Music Ltd.
Sun's Greatest Hits [RCA] 1992
Various Artists
RCA 2:47
Deja Vu Gold Sampler 1992
Various Artists
Deja Vu 2:51
Hits [1993] 1993 Sony Music Distribution 2:45
Super Hits 1994 Sony Music Distribution / Sbme Special Mkts. / Song BMG Music Entertainment 2:49
20 Award Winning Country Superstars 1994
Various Artists
Warlock 2:54
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
Lonesome Me 1995 Chicago Records Dist. 3:28
Country Classics [Drive Archive] 1995
Various Artists
Drive Archive
Here's Johnny 1995 Sony Music Distribution 2:43
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 / Intercontinental Records 2:51
The Man in Black: 1963-1969 1996 Bear Family Records 2:35
Outlaws Super Hits 1996
Various Artists
Columbia / Sony Music Distribution 2:49
Die Hard Country 1996
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution 0:00
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 Classics [Emporio] 1997
Various Artists
Emporio 2:43
Very Best of Country [Crimson] 1998
Various Artists
Crimson Productions 2:46
Mega Country, Vol. 3 1998
Various Artists
Pmf
Hot Tracks: Train Super Hits 1998
Various Artists
Epic / Sony Music Distribution 2:47
There You Go 1998 Cleopatra
I Walk the Line: The Very Best of Johnny Cash 1999 Collectables 2:46
Man in Black: His Greatest Hits 1999 Columbia / Legacy 2:44
The Sun Gods 1999
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill 2:32
Great 1999 Festival Records 2:50
Rebels & Outlaws: Music From the Wild Side of Life 1999
Various Artists
Capitol 2:50
Exposed Roots: Best of Alt. Country 1999
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution 2:49
Sun Records: 25 All-Time Greatest Hits 1999
Various Artists
Varese 2:50
The Essential Sun Collection 1999 Recall (UK) 2:30
The Complete Original Sun Singles 1999 Varese 2:32
Showtime/Original Golden Hits, Vol. 3 1999 Collectables 2:51
Classic Country: The Fifties Legends 1999
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 2:49
Greatest Hits of Johnny Cash, Vol. 1 2000 Platinum Disc 2:54
No Image 2000 Columbia / Sony Music Distribution 2:45
Gold Collection [Retro] 2000 Retro Music 2:50
Committed 2000
Original Soundtrack
Chapter III Records 2:44
Sun Records: The Definitive Hits 2000
Various Artists
Collectables 2:49
Love, God, Murder [3 CD] 2000 Columbia / Legacy 2:52
The Legend at His Best: Ultimate Box Set & Autobiography 2000 Collectables 2:46
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
CD Double Play / IRC / 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 2:42
Sun Records: The Definitive Hits, Vol. 1 2001
Various Artists
Collectables 2:49
The Very Best of the Sun Years 2001 Metro 2:48
Country Anthems 2001
Various Artists
Masters / Intercontinental Records 2:50
Sun Records 50th Anniversary Edition 2001 Sun Record Company 2:49
Greatest Hits: Best of the Best Gold 2001 Trilogie 2:53
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 Mercury 0:00
The Essential Johnny Cash 2002 Legacy / Columbia 2:44
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
The Essential Sun Singles 2002 Varese 2:49
20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Johnny Cash 2002 Mercury 2:47
A Heart of a Legend 2002 Madacy Distribution / Madacy 2:47
Sun Records 50th Anniversary Box 2002
Various Artists
Varèse Sarabande 2:50
Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams and Other Favorite Tunes 2003 Varèse Sarabande / Varese 2:50
I Walk the Line [Music Media] 2003 Music Media (Germany) / Epic 2:46
Classic American Voices 2003 Direct Source 2:50
I Walk the Line and Other Hits 2003 Flashback Records / Rhino Flashback 2:49
Get Rhythm & Life Goes On 2003 Double Play Records 2:50
The Highwaymen 2004 ADD Records 2:44
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
Starsky & Hutch 2004
Original Soundtrack
TVT 2:50
Country Legend [Madacy] 2004 Madacy Distribution / Madacy 2:47
Hayride Anthology 2004 Cleopatra 2:27
54 Great Performances 2004 Platinum Entertainment 2:47
Lonesome in Black: The Legendary Sun Recordings 2004 Metro Doubles 2:48
Nashville Honky Tonk 2004
Various Artists
Northquest 2:48
Essential Rock 'N' Roll, Vol. 1 2004
Various Artists
Laserlight 2:49
A Pair of Brothers 2004 K-Tel Distribution 2:46
20 Greatest Hits [Platinum] 2004 Platinum Disc 2:51
Orby Records Spotlights Johnny Cash 2004 Orbison Records 2:49
Country Legend, Vol. 1 2004 Madacy 2:47
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 2:47
The Original Sun Albums: Complete Collection 2005 Varèse Sarabande 2:51
Train of Love 2005 Go. 2:47
The Man in Black [American Legends] 2005 American Legends / Allegro Corporation 2:42
The Legendary 2005 Spectrum Music 2:45
The Definitive Real Country Collection 2005 Chrome Dreams 2:42
Country Legend [Disky #1] 2005 Disky 2:48
The Legend [Columbia] 2005 Legacy / Columbia 2:45
Best of Sun Records, Vol. 1 2005
Various Artists
Pazzazz 2:46
Walking the Line: The Legendary Sun Recordings 2005 Metro 2:49
The Complete Sun Recordings 1955-1958 2005 Time / Life Music 2:49
Ring of Fire: The Legend of Johnny Cash 2005 Universal Distribution 2:50
I Walk the Line: 25 Greatest Hits 2005 Country Stars 2:46
Collection [Madacy Box Revised] 2005 Madacy 2:47
I Walk the Line [Collectables] 2006 Collectables 2:48
The Essential Sun Records Collection 2006
Various Artists
Pazzazz 2:46
Walk the Line 2006 Snapper 2:47
10 Top 10's 2006 Compendia Music Group 2:51
Louisiana Hayride 2006
Various Artists
Proper Box 2:46
Essential Guide to American Roots 2006
Various Artists
Essential Guide 2:50
Greatest Ever! Country 2006
Various Artists
Greatest Ever / Union Square Music 2:49
Silver Collection 2007 Universal Distribution 2:47
Best of Johnny Cash: Green Series 2008 Universal International 2:47
Hit Collection 2008 Sony BMG 2:42
Johnny Cash's America 2008 Legacy / Columbia 2:44
Greatest Hits [Steel Box Collection] 2008 Commercial Canada / Sony Music Distribution 2:43
Playlist Your Way 2008 Island 2:46
Classic Johnny Cash 2008 Spectrum Music 2:46
Johnny Cash Remixed 2009 Music World Entertainment / Compadre Records / Music World Music 3:01
The Roots of Gram Parsons 2009
Various Artists
Snapper 2:47
Sixteen Timeless Classic Hits 2009
Various Artists
Sun Record Company 2:54
Best of Johnny Cash, Vol. 2: Superstar Series 2009 Strategic Marketing 2:49
Icon 2010 Mercury Nashville 2:45
Sun Records' Greatest Hits 2010
Various Artists
Curb 2:51
Bob Dylan Cover to Cover: The Originals 2010
Various Artists
Mischief / Music Melon 2:46
Sixties: Collected 2010
Various Artists
USM 3:10
The Troubadour 2011 Delta Music Group / Music Digital 2:50
100 Hits Legends: Johnny Cash 2011 100 Hits 2:49
The Golden Age of Country [Time-Life] 2011
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 2:44
No Image 2011 Mercury 2:44
Bob Dylan's Country Selection 2011
Various Artists
Chrome Dreams 2:42
The Pop Years: The 50s 2011
Various Artists
Crimson Productions 2:46
The Real...Johnny Cash: The Ultimate Johnny Cash Collection [3-CD] 2011 Sony Music 2:50
I Walk the Line [Metro] 2011 Metro / Metro Select 2:48
Country Music's Best [Dance Street] 2011
Various Artists
Dance Street / ZYX Music 0:00
Absolutely Country 2011
Various Artists
Music Digital 2:49
Fender: The Golden Age 1950-1970 2012
Various Artists
Ace / Ace UK 2:49
No Image 2012 Labelle
I Walk The Line - 101 Classic Tracks 2012 AP
No Image 2012 Labelle
Simply Country [2012] 2012
Various Artists
Simply 2:47
Country: Johnny Cash 2012 BMG / Sony Music Entertainment 2:45
The Sun Country Box: Country Music Recorded by Sam Phillips 1950-1959 2013
Various Artists
Bear Family Records 2:29
Every Song Tells a Story 2013 Sony Music 2:44
Bob Dylan & the Band's Basement Tapes Influences: Original Versions of the Big Pink Recordings 2013
Various Artists
Chrome Dreams 2:42
Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Hillbilly Music: 1968 2013
Various Artists
Bear Family Records 2:45
No Image 2013 Mercury 2:44
The Box Set Series 2014 Columbia / Legacy 2:50
No Image 2014 Mercury Nashville 2:45
The Man in Black [Kingsland] 2015 Kingsland Records 2:50
Original Sun Albums: 1957-1964 2017 Charly Records 2:50
Great Guitars at Sun 2017
Various Artists
Bear Family Records 2:50
Sun Records 65th Anniversary: Born From the Blues 2017
Various Artists
Curb 2:50
A Lone Star State of Mind 2018 All Access 3:03
100 Hits: The Best Country Album 2018
Various Artists
100 Hits 2:46
100 Tubes Country
Various Artists
Wagram 2:50
300 Hits: Saturday Night Party
Various Artists
Bellevue Publishing / Wienerworld 2:49
Country & Western: Golden Hits
Various Artists
Country Roads / ZYX 2:47
Country Classics Set #1: Vol. 1 - 3
Various Artists
Columbia River Entertainment Group
Country Hits [USM Media]
Various Artists
USM Media 2:50
Go West
Various Artists
Drive (import) 2:48
No Image Phantom
No Image
Various Artists
Time / Life Music / WEA
Hits [Silver Star] Silver Star Records 2:48
I Walk the Line [Power Station] 2:48
It's Country [Play 27-7]
Various Artists
Play 24-7 / Play 27-7 2:52
No Image Sun Record Company
Original Hits From the 50s & 60s
Various Artists
10Ten Media / Zebralution
Original and Greatest Hits From the 50's and 60's
Various Artists
10Ten Media / Zebralution
No Image Sun Record Company
The Best of Johnny Cash [Sony] Sony Music Distribution
The Complete Country Collection
Various Artists
Horizon Records 2:49
The Fabulous Johnny Cash [EGB] EGB 2:49
The Greatest Hits of the Early Years Gralin Music
No Image
Various Artists
Com-Es Musik Schallplatten
The World's Biggest Country Classics
Various Artists
Union Square Music / Worlds Biggest 2:47
This Is the Sound of...Johnny Cash Universal 2:45
Time Life: '60s Country
Various Artists
Time Life 2:43
Twenty Original Country Greats
Various Artists
Delta Leisure Group / Music Digital 2:49