Listen to the Folsom Prison Blues Quaratine Session
My latest Quarantine Sessions article covers Johnny Cash’s iconic “Folsom Prison Blues.” My rendition of the song with the talented Mark Caserta is available on SoundCloud. Below, I will discuss how Folsom Prison Blues was such a part of Johnny Cash’s music persona that it caused some people, myself included, to mistakenly believe that he had actually served time in prison.
Did Johnny Cash Serve Time in Prison?
I used to assume that Johnny Cash served time in prison. It was in his iconic song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” so why wouldn’t I? I wasn’t the only one. I remember asking my father if it was true. Paraphrasing my father: “I’m pretty sure he did, manslaughter I think. Murdered someone outside a bar. Served his time and got out.” Every time I heard Folsom Prison I imagined “the man in black” behind bars, writing songs and waiting on his release.
The Truth of the Matter is Different than the Song
I learned later that Johnny Cash neither killed anyone nor spent time behind bars. In fact, all accounts that I have read suggest that he was a gentle giant. To be sure, he was arrested several times for small crimes like possession of illegal narcotics, or trespassing – but nothing too serious. The image of Cash as a hardened criminal came entirely from his hit song. I can only imagine that his tremendous stature probably played a role in people’s willingness to believe he’d be capable of murder.
“Folsom Prison Blues” and Marketing Johnny Cash
Cash’s persona, which was buttressed by “Folsom Prison Blues,” became part of his marketing imagery. An old concert poster for the Fargo Civic Memorial Auditorium reads “Johnny Cash, America’s Most Wanted Singin’ Storyteller.” Cash the artist and the performer tapped into the well-worn image of the outlaw, even though Cash the person was nothing of the sort.
Johnny Cash the Prison Reform Advocate
Interestingly, Johnny Cash was an advocate for prison reform. In the 1950s, he began performing in prisons for the inmates, most famously in San Quentin Prison in 1958. The live album from this show, and another from Folsom Prison itself, reached the top of the Billboard Pop Album chart in 1969.
In the end, the only time the singer of “Folsom Prison Blues” spent time in Folsom Prison was to perform a show there.