Release Date: December 15, 1955

Credits: Johnny Cash (guitar, vocal); Luther Perkins (lead guitar); Marshall Grant (bass); Sam Phillips (production)

Backstory: Johnny Cash may have never done a stint in prison, but it didn’t stop him from writing some of the most iconic songs of incarcerated life during the 20th century. He might have felt that lonely while stationed in West Germany, where he wrote the song after an Air Force screening of Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. The movie didn’t have much staying power — released in 1951, it was a tale of a sadistic warden that featured an intro spoken by the prison itself — but it inspired Cash to write one of his first great songs.

Initially released as the B-side to his second single, So Doggone Lonesome, Cash wrote the lyrics to the combination train-prison song by putting himself in the mindset of a criminal. (“Boy, that was a stretch, I know,” his pal Willie Nelson would joke.) “I thought about what is the most evil reason a man could [have] for killing somebody?” Cash later explained. “I figured just to watch him die.”

But the song didn’t reach its historic status until 13 year after its initial release: in 1968, when the warden of Folsom invited the Man in Black to come sing for his inmates. Cash led with this song, resulting in one of the most heartbreaking moments of country history. Cash had gone through a lot in that decade — losing his family to drug abuse, very nearly losing his second wife, June Carter, as well — and you can hear a new depth in his voice when he sings lines like, “I know I can’t be free.”

That Ol’ Song: The melody, though, wasn’t as original as Cash’s dark words, as it was stripped almost directly from the Gordon Jenkins-penned Crescent City Blues, recorded in 1953 by Beverly Maher. Cash eventually paid Jenkins $75,000: “At the time, I really had no idea I would be a professional recording artist,” he later said, assuming that, if he were lucky, he might get as far as playing it on the radio. “I wasn’t trying to rip anybody off. So when I later went to Sun to record the song, I told Sam Phillips that I rewrote an old song to make my song, and that was that.”

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