SONG: Folsom Prison Blues
ARTIST: Johnny Cash
Listen to it here:
Folsom Prison Blues was written by Johnny Cash in 1953 and not released until 1955. It was originally released on his debut studio album Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar and a live recording from Folsom Prison itself was released in 1968 for the album At Folsom Prison, the latter version winning Cash a Grammy award for Best Male Vocal Performance. Cash wrote the song while stationed in Germany, starting with the line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”. It was eventually recorded at Sun Studios and produced by Sam Phillips, and the 1968 Folsom Prison recording features the same studio musicians, plus a drummer.
For more about Johnny Cash, check out our review of I Walk the Line!
Johnny Cash started almost all of his concerts with “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” before launching into Folsom Prison Blues.
The original recording had no drummer, so a snare effect was achieved by slipping a piece of paper between the guitar strings for a percussive effect when drumming.
I think this is the song that made me decide that Johnny Cash was a country music badass. It totally differentiates him from some of those sparkly suit-and-tassels wearing “oh lonesome me” live at the Grand Ol’ Opry type of country singers that were his contemporaries. This song is one of Johnny’s signature tunes for good reason. He was really adept at that country bandit type of melody and guitar playing, and he probably didn’t think about it while he was writing, but he wrote very well for his own voice – not just pitch range, but character as well. Again Johnny’s voice is fantastic – full of body, so distinctive and suits the gritty, outlaw theme of the song. It’s got that typical Johnny Cash railroad-sounding rhythmic guitar and the recording sounds very Sam Phllips with the sparse instrumentation, reverb vocals and overall very budget sounding recording. But would you want a song about shooting a man and rotting away in a shit prison sung by ‘the man in black’ to sound too slick? Anyway. Is this my favourite Johnny Cash song? It might be. It’s up there.
This is such a great example of what Johnny Cash is capable of. He sings with a bit of cheekiness in this early recording which I think is sadly missing in some of his older stuff. Cash has a great range and can project through all of it which is really cool. He’s singing in this one as if his backing band is louder than the balance really shows in this one, but I kind of like it anyway. I’m still sick of the reverb on the singer’s voice only because I feel like it makes the recording sound way too studio, but it’s less evident in this one. I also wish the bass was way more present in this one because I think it would really compliment Johnny’s voice. This sounds to me like there’s no drum kit – I couldn’t really tell you what instruments those are that are percussing, but it sounds like a guiro, and then a bunch of other wooden instruments which is kind of cool, and makes this song sound a little slapdash in a really interesting way. Like a lot of Johnny Cash songs, the guitar playing is on the twangy side for me, but all in all, I feel like all these elements work super well together. It would be really cool to hear a much more driving version of this song, but this classic is good enough on its own as well!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
A 1980s version by everyone’s favourite cousin-marryin’ kller:
Reverend Horton Heat
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