How Johnny Cash Went To (Folsom) Prison And Changed Everything

By | January 12, 2021

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Johnny Cash on the cover of 'At Folsom Prison.' Source:

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison just about saved Johnny Cash. By the mid-'60s, the country music legend wasn't as popular as he'd once been. He was ready to turn it around, and on January 13, 1968, at California's Folsom State Prison, he put on a show that was groundbreaking, personally satisfying, and commercially successful. 

Cash had been interested in prisoners and prison life for over a decade, and "Folsom Prison Blues" had been a big hit in 1955. His days of hitmaking seemed behind him, but At Folsom Prison changed his trajectory, making him relevant to younger listeners and setting the stage for him to get his own TV show.

The Journey Began With A Film

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The film that inspired Cash's song, Folsom Prison Blues. Source: (DVD Beaver)

Yes, Johnny Cash did spend some time in jail sobering up, but he was never really a criminal (though he was revered as an influence on the outlaw country movement). He did not base his song “Folsom Prison Blues” on a particular experience in jail; rather, he was inspired by the 1951 film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.  Cash's song was written from the perspective of a man who had shot someone just to watch him die; Cash wanted to create a character who had committed a crime with the most senseless motivation possible. He wrote the song in 1953 and released it in 1955; the song did relatively well in 1956 and was popular with inmates, who began corresponding with him. In 1957, he had his first prison concert at the Huntsville State Prison in Texas and this was followed by performances in additional prisons.