Crimes on .45: "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash
"Folsom Prison Blues"
Written and performed by Johnny Cash
Originally released as a 1955 single.
Available on the 2000 compilation Murder
I wonder what the oh-so-outraged good citizens who wailed so loudly about Ice-T's angry call to violence in Cop Killer have to say about Johnny Cash? As angry as the protagonist in Cop Killer is, at least he's angry ABOUT something. The self-pitying but barely repentant convict in Cash's 1955 song, originally recorded for Sun Records, is in a prison cell because he shot a man in Reno, as he dispassionately admits, “just to watch him die.”
Now THAT'S cold, simply one of the most disturbing but powerful lines in American popular music (and that's saying something). Almost forty-five years after I first heard it, it still sends a shiver up and down my spine. I know we're supposed to pity (or at least empathize) with the prisoner's ongoing torment here, which Cash nails to the wall with unerring accuracy and a few simple images (a howling train whistle, an imagined fancy dining car) but that one line is inescapable. And unrepentant.
Right until the end, Cash, a man who knew all about sin and salvation and personal redemption (not to mention the gray bar hotel) never ceased to explore the dark, violent side of the American dream in his music, and this song, one of his earliest and finest, resonates even now -- even after the Disneyfacation of his life in Walk the Line.
It's available on Murder, a 2000 set that collects some of The Man in Black's favorite recordings of "robbers, liars and murderers" from the last forty odd years. Quentin Tarantino (who tags Cash as the"original hillbilly gangsta") states in the liner notes that these tracks cut "right to the heart of the American underclass. With their brutal sheriffs, pitiless judges, cheatin' tramps, escaped fugitives, condemned men, chain gang prisoners, unjustly accused innocents, and first-person protagonist who'd shoot a man just to watch him die, Cash's songs are poems to the criminal mentality."
Knucklehead gangsta rappers who think they invented bad ass are simply carrying on the tradition. Maybe someone should melt their gold teeth together for a moment and make them listen. They might learn something.
As The Man in Black himself puts it, "These songs are just for listening and singing. Don't go out and do it." Brutal, but real.