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"Folsom Prison Blues" is an American country music song credited to Johnny Cash. The song combines elements from two popular folk genres, the train song and the prison song, both of which Cash would continue to use for the rest of his career. It has become one of Cash's signature songs.

In the lyrics, the jailed protagonist listens to the whistle of a train outside his cell and recounts his crimes ("I shot a man in Renomarker/just to watch him die"), imagines the free people inside the train ("They're probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars") and dreams of what he would do if he were free. "I know I had it coming/I know I can't be free," sings the imprisoned man. "But those people keep a'moving/and that's what tortures me."


Cash was inspired to write this song after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951) while serving in West Germanymarker in the United States Air Force. Cash recounted how he came up with the "Reno" line: "I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that's what came to mind."

Another source for the song was Gordon Jenkins's 1953 Seven Dreams concept album, specifically the song "Crescent City Blues". Cash used the same melody, and borrowed many of the lyrics without crediting or getting permission from Jenkins when he recorded the song, now entitled with his trio in 1955 for the Sun Records label. Jenkins later filed an infringement lawsuit and received a settlement after Cash's 1968 live recording achieved widespread success.

Cash included the song in his repertoire for decades. The definitive live performance is considered to be the opening song of a concert recorded at Folsom Prisonmarker itself on January 13, 1968. This version was eventually released on the At Folsom Prison album the same year. That opening song is more up-tempo than the Sun studio recording, as befits a concert-opening number. However, the recording's most notable feature — the whoops from the audience at the "Reno" line — was actually added in post-production, according to Michael Streissguth. A special on the Walk the Line DVD indicates that the prisoners were careful not to cheer at any of Cash's comments about the prison itself, fearing reprisal from guards.


Cover versions



  • Streissguth, Michael. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece, Da Capo Press (2004). ISBN 0-306-81338-6.


  1. Anecdotage.Com - Thousands of true funny stories about famous people. Anecdotes from Gates to Yeats
  2. Los Angeles Times: Roots of Cash's hit tunes, Robert Hilburn, 22 August 2006

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