In January of 1968, Johnny Cash performed a live show for the prisoners at the Folsom State Prison. The recordings from the session would be published in May of the same year, as the album known as At Folsom Prison. The album not only helped Cash turn around his waning career, but also shed light on the condition of prison inmates.
One song in particular, out of the track list, stands out as a masterful analysis of the existential condition of the prisoner: Folsom Prison Blues. The song opens on these evocative lines:
I hear the train a-comin’, it’s rolling ‘round the bend
And I aint’ 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
These four lines already manage to introduce us to the life of the narrator. He is a prisoner, and as such, his life is almost completely devoid of external stimuli. To him, even the sound of a nearby-passing train becomes a noteworthy event. Furthermore, the “train that keeps on rolling”, is a constant reminder of his lost freedom, and thus has a negative impact on his mental well-being (this will be a recurrent theme in the lyrics).
While the song follows a standard blues structure, through the use of a skillfully accented shuffle rhythm, it manages to sound as if it’s following the distinctive beat of a steam locomotive, making the listening experience quite immersive. Another factor to take into account is that the song, just like the rest of the album, is a live recording in front of an audience. Throughout the track there are numerous instances of inmates cheering for Cash and his band, making the listening experience much grittier and intimate.
These are the lyrics for the second and third verse:
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 wistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry
I bet there’s rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars
Well, I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a-movin’, and that’s what tortures me
On one hand, we can see in the last lines of both verses how hearing the train’s whistle and thinking about the people riding it fills the narrator with anguish; knowing how close that freedom is becomes, quite literally, a torture to him. On the other hand, these two verses reveal a very interesting detail about the narrator. He seems to have fully accepted his punishment, and admits to being guilty. He has killed a man on a whim (that line in the recording, as a sidenote, is followed by the inmates’ cheers), and he knows he can’t be free. As Angela Davis said, <<The prison is considered so “natural”, that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it>>. This is important to note because even though Cash – who isn’t just pretending to relate to inmates, as he had his fair share of trouble with the law due to his drug addiction – is trying to shed light on the existential condition of prisoners, he still remains within the horizon of prison reform rather than abolition.
We get confirmation of this in the fourth and last verse:
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
The narrator suggests that if he were free he would try to get the train to pass farther from the prison, presumably to alleviate the anguish that it causes to the other inmates. However, as much as he would like for prison to be a more pleasant experience, he doesn’t really think about the possibility of a prison-free world. Mc Leod, in her essay about abolition democracy, speaks about the possibility of an entirely new “abolitionist society”, where law, police and prisons don’t really exist (at least in the way they do now). But the problem seems to be that it is a strenuous task to picture such a world, even for some of the people who would benefit the most from this new society – prisoners, that is.
Davis, Angela. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
Mc Leod, Allegra. 2019. Envisioning Abolition Democracy. Harvard Law Review.