Johnny Cash - Folsom Prison Blues

"Folsom Prison Blues" is a song by Johnny Cash, written in 1953 and first recorded in 1955. It was later included on the Johnny Cash's debut studio album "With His Hot and Blue Guitar," released in 1957.


Story behind the song

Johnny Cash got an inspiration for this song after seeing the 1951 movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, while he was serving in the US Air Force in West Germany at Landsberg, Bavaria, which is the location of a famous prison too.

Cash explained that he wrote the line "But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die", while he was thinking up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person. [1]

It's often admitted, that Cash took the melody for the song and many of the lyrics from "Crescent City Blues" written by composer Gordon Jenkins and sung by Beverly Mahr. [2] Jenkins wasn't credited on the original record issued by Sun Records. In the early 1970s, Cash was obliged to pay Jenkins a settlement of approximately $75,000 following a lawsuit.

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The song was recorded at the Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee on July 30, 1955. Sam Phillips was a producer of the song. Johnny Cash was on guitar and vocals, Luther Perkins on electric guitar, and Marshall Grant on double bass. Phillips announced his new artists as "Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two." [3] They had no drummer in the studio, so Cash replicated the snare drum sound by inserting a piece of paper under the guitar strings and strumming the snare rhythm on his guitar. The song was released as a single on December 15, 1955.

The first prison performance occurred in 1957 when Cash performed for convicts at Huntsville State Prison. The favorable response inspired him to perform at more prisons through the years. [3] However, though the singer was arrested seven times during his life, he never spent any great length of time in jail.

The song was pulled from radio stations following the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968. The lyrics "But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die" were painful after the senator's death. [3]

Columbia Records quickly edited and re-released the single without this line, despite objections from Johnny Cash. [3]

Music videos

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Original recording from Sun Recording Sessions.

Live version

The song is a staple of Johnny Cash's live performances.

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Live performance at Town Hall Party, Los Angeles, California on August 8, 1959.

Cash performed the song at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968, and this version was eventually released on the "At Folsom Prison" album the same year. This version of the song is more uptempo than the Sun studio recording.

The cheering from the audience following the line "But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" was added in post-production, as the prisoners were fearing retribution from guards. [4] Cash, Perkins, and Grant performed together with Al Casey on guitar and W.S. Holland on drums.

Released as a single, the live version reached #1 on the country singles chart, and #32 on the Hot 100, in 1968. Cash also won the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male at the 1969 Grammy Awards.

The popularity of the album and single made Folsom Prison one of the most famous penitentiaries in the world. [3]

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The last time Johnny Cash performed this song at The Carter Ranch on July 5, 2003.

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Notable covers

This song was often covered by various artists, mostly country, and bluegrass.

Waylon Jennings covered this song in 1968 for his album "Jewels." Later, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash performed this song several times together.

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Joaquin Phoenix performs this song in the 2005 Johnny Cash's biopic "Walk the Line."

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A scene from the movie.

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Cover by Joaquin Phoenix.

Everlast made a cover of the song for his fifth studio album "Love, War and the Ghost of Whitey Ford" in 2008.

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Gear and settings


Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash wrote the first version of "Folsom Prison Blues" using his first guitar, purchased in Öberammergau, Germany, which cost him about $5. [5]

Though, the recording of the song was made on Martin D-28.

Luther Perkins

Luther Perkins was Johnny Cash's original electric guitarist from 1955 until his early death in 1968 at age 40. Luther liked early Fender guitars, and especially the Esquire. [6]

Luther Perkins' '55 Fender Esquire.

Amps and effects

Luther Perkins

During the 50s Luther Perkins used Fender '55 Tweed Princeton. [6]

Amp settings

  • Gain - 1
  • Treble - 6
  • Mids - 7
  • Bass - 7
  • Reverb - 3

To capture the notable early delay sound from the Sun Record sessions, set the delay feedback (or "Intensity") to zero for one repeat, the Delay Time (or "Repeat Rate") to 137ms and the Level ("Echo") between 1/2 and 3/4 of the original signal. [6]


Guitar: standard tuning (E A D G B E). Capo is on the 1st fret.

Though bass guitar wasn't used in the original recording, you can play the double bass line on a bass guitar in standard tuning (E A D G).

Song key

The song is written in the key F major.


Johnny Cash mostly plays chords during the whole song, while Luther Perkins' guitar line is based on arpeggios and involves a lot of palm muting.

One of the most spectacular parts of Johnny Cash's performance of this song is his famous "train" rhythm supported by his right-hand movements up and down the neck.

Song breakdown

The song has rather simple structure, consisting of verses, divided by interludes:

Intro - Verse 1 - Verse 2 - Interlude/Solo 1 - Verse 3 - Interlude/Solo 2 -Verse 4

The song starts with a short intro line with the bend at the end.

As it was mentioned, verses are built around Johnny Cash's chord strumming and Luther Perkins' palm-muted arpeggios.

In interludes, Luther plays a distinctive solo riff, consisting of hammer-ons, bends, vibratos and several chord strums, which require good hand stretching.

Full-song guitar lesson

Actually, this lesson starts at 4:13 with a cover, Johnny Cash's guitar line is explained starting from 7:03, Luther Perkins' line is explained from 12:12.

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  1. "Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues"
  2. Los Angeles Times "Roots of Cash's hit tunes"
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 "The REAL Story behind Folsom Prison Blues"
  4. Michael Streissguth. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece. Da Capo Press (2004)
  5. "Remembering Johnny Cash: 10 Things You Might Not Know About Him"
  6. 1 2 3 Premier Guitar "'How to Get an Authentic Johnny Cash/Luther Perkins Esquire Tone' by Dirk Wacker"