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Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues

“I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”

Surely one of the most iconic lines in country music – or any genre of music for that matter. The first half is also the name of a nice book by one Graeme Thomson; not a perfect book, it has its flaws, but I’d still readily recommend it to any fan of death, popular music and both. It’s also the book that made me conscious of how I was not so interested in love songs but death songs as showing the faces behind the mask of popular music because, though there are more of the former, in many ways the latter better define their eras and their music. Love is more often filled with empty platitudes… even when death is a platitude, it’s somehow more enlightening about the circumstances and ways of thinking behind. Love comes and goes for most of us but death… death’s it, once you contract it, it’s usually a pretty permanent state of things.

With that introduction to the theme in mind, Folsom Prison Blues makes the modern mind think of a more innocent age. Johnny Cash famously tried to think of the worst thing a man could do, and to a mind saturated with news of pedophilia, rape, mutilation, torture of both mind and body and countless other atrocities, it seems quaint to think of killing a man in Reno just for the heck of it as being the worst thing someone can imagine… but on the other hand, enhance the story with a bit more graphic detail and a more cynical, less repentant account, and it’s still today a pretty bleak story. The upbeat tempo does, in the end, disguise a pretty twisted character… although a character who has, it seems, later in prison comes to see the error of his ways, because he “knows he had it comin'” and he knows he “can’t be free”.

Folsom Prison Blues is a pretty typical “old time” murder ballad lyrically, in some ways not unlike a song like Knoxville Girl (though it goes into less graphic detail); the act of killing seems like a spur of the moment thing and though the killing is the pivot upon which the story of the song turns, it’s mentioned almost incidentally in the lyrics. Unlike Death Metal, the lyrics do not feast upon the act of murder; instead, it concentrates on the impact of that one deed. And there’s a moral in the story, the killer gets what’s coming to him and is forced to reflect upon the path his life took because of the killing – in this case, with a more or less repentant mind. On the other hand, it’s maybe less of a death song than a prison song with a strong tangent to a murder ballad, because the body of the lyrics is about being imprisoned for life and dreaming of freedom. And of course, there’s trains in it. Heck, if only Johnny sang a line or two about getting drunk, even David Allan Coe would admit this is the perfect Country & Western song.

All in all, though, Folsom Prison Blues does to me embody much of what a death song is and should be about: not being fixated on death, killing, dying and being deceased, but reflecting upon what these things mean to the ailed person, those around him/her/them, and those inflicting this ailment on others.

And it’s a damn fine song.