But I shot a man in Reno, Just to watch him die… Johnny Cash
It doesn’t get much better than that.
The man in black was The Man. Not many performers can cross genres like Johnny Cash did and still does. He first recorded this song in 1955 at Sun Records as the B side to “S3o Doggone Lonesome” but it was the live 1969 version that hit.
The At Folsom Prison album helped revitalize Cash’s career. Up to this point, his last Country top 40 entry was in 1964. This was recorded live at Folsom Prison in California on January 13, 1968, and that album came to define his outlaw image. The record company told him it wouldn’t work but Johnny recorded at the prison anyway.
Folsom Prison Blues peaked at #1 on the Billboard Country Charts, #1 on the Canadian Country Charts, #32 on the Billboard 100, and #17 on the Canadian Pop Charts. The song and album generated a lot of interest in the rebellious Johnny Cash, who made prison reform his political cause of choice. He started regularly performing in jails, doing about 12 shows a year for free mostly in Folsom and San Quentin.
The album peaked at #1 in the Billboard Country Charts, #13 in the Billboard Album Charts, and #27 in Canada.
This iconic picture came from Folsom Prison. According to photographer Jim Marshall…he asked Cash to express what he thought of the prison authorities when he played the show. Marshall told Cash “let’s do a shot for the warden” and the picture was born.
Cash saw Crane Wilbur’s 90-minute film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison while stationed in Germany. It left an impression on Cash, who emphasized the tale of the imprisoned men, and inspired him to write a song. Johnny Cash: “It was a violent movie, I just wanted to write a song that would tell what I thought it would be like in prison.”
Cash’s first prison performance occurred in 1957 when he performed for inmates at Huntsville State Prison. The favorable response inspired Cash to perform at more prisons through the years. His next hit, recorded in San Quentin Prison, was the humorous “A Boy Named Sue,” which proved that he could be clever and funny.
Cash came off as a champion for the oppressed. He got his own national TV show in 1969 and became one of the most popular entertainers of his era. His guests included Derek and the Dominos, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Merle Haggard, James Taylor, Tammy Wynette, and Roy Orbison.
Isn’t that list incredible? Cash was considered a Country-Folk artist but look at the range of performers. The late sixties and seventies were like this ….and it’s the reason I like them so much…all the generations intersected at that point in time. I mean you have Eric Clapton and then you have Tammy Wynette on the guest list.
The lyrics to this song were based on a 1953 recording called Crescent City Blues by a bandleader named Gordon Jenkins with Beverly Maher on vocals. After filing a lawsuit, Gordon Jenkins received an out-of-court settlement from Cash in 1969. I have to say it does sound really close.
Johnny 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.”
Rosanne Cash: “He was a real man with great faults, and great genius and beauty in him, but he wasn’t this guy who could save you or anyone else.”
Folsom Prison Blues
(Hello, I’m Johnny Cash)
I hear the train a-comin’
It’s rollin’ ’round 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 (play it to the verse, yeah)
I bet there’s rich folks eatin’
From a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee
And smokin’ big cigars
Well, I know I had it comin’
I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a-movin’
And that’s what tortures me (hit it)
Well, if they freed me from this prison
If 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