Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues Era

Johnny and “backstage” after their show at San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA. 1969


When Cash played his first prison show, at San Quentin, a 20 year old Merle Haggard was incarcerated there, serving 15 years for burglary charges. Years later when Haggard had become a country star, he was talking to Cash about how great that show had been. Cash remarked something along the lines of “I don’t remember playing San Quentin with you”, to which Haggard replied “No, I was in the audience!”.

Johnny Cash performing at Folsom Prison, 1968

Cash was inspired to write Folsom Prison Blues after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison while serving in West Germany in the US Air Force at Landsberg, Bavaria. Cash recounted how he came up with the line “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”: “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.”

Johnny and his famous finger, San Quentin 1968

Photo: Reddit

Cash performed the song at Folsom Prison itself on January 13, 1968 and prisoners were careful not to cheer at any of Cash’s comments about the prison itself, fearing reprisal from guards. Cash, who made prison reform his political cause of choice and started regularly performing in jails, doing about 12 shows a year mostly in Folsom and San Quentin. Said Cash: “I don’t see anything good come out of prison. You put them in like animals and tear out the souls and guts of them, and let them out worse than they went in.”

Johnny Cash performing at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville, 1968


I hear that train a-commin’, it’s rollin’ around 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 blowin’, I hang my head and cry

I bet there’s rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars
But 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 that freed me from this prison
and 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

Outside of Folsom Prison 1969


Johnny & June Carter Cash on the yard at Folsom Prison, Jan. 1968


Cash at Folosm, 68′