Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash – The Man In Black

Johnny Cash – The Man In Black – has one of the most recognizable styles that has ever graced the stage. His unique vocal and songwriting abilities will live on in the hearts of his fans forever.

In this guitar lesson we will learn how to play that very recognizable introduction to “Folsom Prison Blues”. This song (like most Johnny Cash songs) is in the key of “E”. The primary chords are E, A and B7.

For those who are history buffs…

On July 30, 1955 Johnny Cash recorded the first version of his signature classic country song, “Folsom Prison Blues”, in Sam Phillip’s famous Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee.  While authorship of the song is credited to Cash, a subsequent infringement lawsuit filed by American arranger and composer Gordon Jenkins following the inclusion of the song on Cash’s live album “At Folsom Prison” in 1968 resulted in a settlement on behalf of Jenkins.  As it happened, one of the sources of Cash’s inspiration was Jenkins’ “Crescent City Blues” from the latter’s 1953 concept album “Seven Dreams”.  Cash ‘borrowed’ the song’s melody and used many of the same lyrics without permission and without crediting Jenkins.

Produced by Sam Phillips, “Folsom Prison Blues” b/w “So Doggone Lonesome” was first released on December 15, 1955, charting twice on Billboard in 1956; as a Pop Single reaching number 17 and again as a Country Single at number 3.  Both songs are featured on the 1957 Sun album “Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar”.

Cash’s inspiration for the song  came to him while serving in the U.S. Air Force in West Germany, after seeing the 1951 film “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison” starring Steve Cochran and David Brian.  Cash once told of the song’s lyrical conception, that he had tried to think of the worst possible reason for committing murder and what occurred to him was ‘only to watch the person die’, hence the infamous “Reno” line of the song.  Just for the record, Cash never served a prison sentence, though he was jailed several times for misdemeanor offences.

Combining two current themes in folk music at the time – trains and prison – “Folsom Prison Blues” was the perfect vehicle for Cash’s inimitable bass-baritone voice, echoing the tribulation and regret of the song’s protagonist, a prisoner in a California State penitentiary who hears the whistle of a train outside while imagining the passengers on the train in luxurious accommodation, and dreaming of his own freedom.

Cash played the song in his concert repertoire for decades, the most memorable of those being the version recorded during his famous performance at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968.

For the show’s opener, a more up-tempo treatment of the song is given here to greet his captive audience.  What is interesting is that the shouts from the crowd following the “Reno” line were actually dubbed-in afterwards.  A DVD feature on “Walk the Line” explains that the inmates were cautious to refrain from any support of Cash’s remarks about Folsom, fearing retaliation from the prison guards.

Cash’s compassion toward prisoners surfaces in themes that he would revisit throughout his career, but his heartfelt rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues” performed as a guest within the walls of Folsom Prison itself is regarded not only as the definitive version of the song, but also as a defining moment in Cash’s performing career – the one that crystallized his romantic outlaw image and reaffirmed his standing as the legendary Man in Black.

Be Sociable, Share!