”But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”
Country singer Johnny Cash cultivated a bad boy image and was so good at it many thought he was a hardened criminal who did time behind bars. He was a guest at a few different prisons, but as a performer, not an inmate. And while prison destroys many lives, it was the performance at Folsom that saved Cash.
–On This Day in History, Shit Went Down: January 13, 1968–
Cash wrote the song Folsom Prison Blues in 1955 after watching a documentary about the place, and had pondered the idea of recording a performance at a prison but it was the 50s and people were really fucking uptight, so it was another thirteen years before the album finally happened. And when it did, Johnny was circling the drain.
Like many musicians, Cash was frequently drunk and drugged. He popped uppers and downers like they were Skittles, except those wouldn’t exist until 1974. In 1965 he was on a fishing trip and was so out of it his fire burned down five hundred acres of California forest, but Cash blamed it on his truck’s exhaust system.
Cash never spent more than a night in jail for various misdemeanors, but nurtured the outlaw narrative. He’d played prisons before, included Folsom, but never recorded it. On January 13, 1968, he performed for some actual outlaws at Folsom and turned it into a live album.
”San Quentin, what good do you think you do?
Do you think I’ll be different when you’re through?”
At the time of the recording, his addictions were spiraling out of control, his record label was threatening to punt his ass, and he’d even considered taking his own life. But then Folsom turned things around. He performed two shows that led to seventeen tracks for Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. The following year he did another live prison album titled Johnny Cash at San Quentin. Both albums hit #1 on the Billboard country chart.
The Folsom performance took place in the prison cafeteria, with the stage set up behind death row. There had been trouble at the prison recently, with a guard taken hostage, and during the concert guards walked above on ramps carrying rifles. The inmates were sternly warned to remain in their seats. Despite the tense atmosphere, Johnny connected with them. His performance was a hit.
Afterward Cash would become a champion of prison reform. He continued to battle his addictions, but with the help of his new wife June Carter, who he married just a few months after the Folsom show, and his strong faith he continued to flourish in his career for decades. June died in 2003 and Johnny followed her four months later.
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“Folsom Prison Blues”
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
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone
When I was just a baby my mama told me
“Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns”
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry
I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a movin’
And that’s what tortures me
Well if they freed me from this prison
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away
San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me
You’ve blistered me since nineteen sixty three
I’ve seen ’em come and go and I’ve seen them die
And long ago I stopped askin’ why
San Quentin, I hate every inch of you.
You’ve cut me and you scarred me through and through.
And I’ll walk out a wiser weaker man;
Mister Congressman you can’t understand.
San Quentin, what good do you think you do?
Do you think I’ll be different when you’re through?
You bend my heart and mind and you warp my soul,
And your stone walls turn my blood a little cold.
San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell.
May your walls fall and may I live to tell.
May all the world forget you ever stood.
And may all the world regret you did no good.
San Quentin, I hate every inch of you.