When Johnny Cash performed “Folsom Prison Blues” at California’s Folsom State Prison on Jan. 13, 1968, the song was hardly new.
Cash wrote the tune in 1951 after seeing the film noir Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison while serving in the U.S. Air Force. The studio version, which was recorded in 1955 at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in Memphis, climbed to No. 4 on Billboard‘s Most Played by Jockeys country chart in 1956, and generated mail from inmates around the country.
Although Cash’s experience with incarceration had been limited to a handful of one-night stays in jail on misdemeanor charges, he sympathized with the plight of the imprisoned, and performed the first of several concerts for them in 1957 at Texas’ Huntsville State Prison. More than 10 years later, he played Folsom Prison backed by an all-star band that included his wife, June Carter Cash, and The Statler Brothers.
On July 20, 1968, the live recording of “Folsom Prison Blues” from that concert began a four-week reign atop Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart at a particularly turbulent time in America. On June 5, as the single was climbing the chart, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. In the aftermath, many radio stations put “Folsom” on hold, due to the song’s signature line, “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die” — prompting Columbia to release an edited version.
In addition to its chart success, “Folsom Prison Blues” won the Grammy Award for best country vocal performance, male, in 1969. An inductee into both the Country Music Hall of Fame (in 1980) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 1992), Cash died at 71 of complications from diabetes on Sept. 12, 2003. He left behind a discography of more than 90 studio and live albums.