The “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash has been regarded as one of the most influential and one of the most popular musical recordings of the late 60’s era. This immense popularity and appeal of the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash can be attributed to the contribution it provide to the popular American country music as well as to the broader cultural, social and political contexts of the prevailing times (Widmaier, 2001). The manner in which the song sought to appeal to the feelings and emotional and mental stature of the prisoners of the Folsom prison and the manner in which Johnny Cash selected the Folsom prison as the destination for the presentation and the lyrics of the song along with the social and political context of the time and the life history of the singer helped carve out a niche of its own through the medium of the song and its appeal to the broader community. The prevailing social and cultural discourse ad the manner in which the popular American country music was used a source of entertainment merely have all been important aspects that have been targeted and sought to be changed by the medium of the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. As a matter of fact, the life history of Johnny Cash and the social isolation he suffered as a result of his addiction to drugs and the larger social and political context that presented negative taboo or a feeling of isolation and indifference towards the prisoners or the ones regarded as being astray for the society have been very well presented through the medium of the song “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash (Widmaier, 2001).
This essay would seek to devolve the aspects of influence of the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash and the larger social, political and cultural perspective associated with the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash and the ways in which the singer sought to change the stereotypes and bring into effect a level of social change and change in perceptions about the prisoners’ lives. This essay would further strive to be to bring to the fore the aspects related to the influence of Johnny Cash and the ways in which the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash sought to be the representative of the new era in the American popular country song (Wicke and Cohen, 2002).
The ways in which and the extent to which the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash influenced the American popular genre and sought to bring in a confluence between the folk song genres of train song and prison song is manifest in the immense popularity and uniqueness the song attributed in the subsequent times to have become one of the most remarkable song albums of the late 60’s and to find a place in the top 100 music recordings of all time and inscribe its name in golden letters in the pages of history (Streissguth, 2004).
The effect of the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash on the American popular genre can be further related to the change in attitudes and use of the American popular genre to have represented the elements of morale and spirit and to represent hope from despair and encourage the forbidden to live a life of dignity and freedom. The use of the American popular genre for the purpose of presenting the song ad a force and a medium of encouraging hope and belief on life have been the other remarkable features of the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash so far the American popular song genre is concerned (Smalley, et al. 1972). The broader contributions of the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash to the popular culture can be related to the ways the song sought to challenge the way the society relished the popular American song genre for the purpose of entertainment merely and the ways in which the society and the political system seem to turn a blind eye to the plight an sufferings of the prisoners and left to get rotten in the hands of destiny and solitude, frustration, confinement, sufferings, immense mental pressure. The life history of Johnny Cash, his days in the Air force Secret Services, and down to his days of drug addiction and the social and self-harm and solitude inflicted upon him along with the scene and mood of the environment and the prison where the music was to be performed made the platform for the song to be delivered along its treaded path as sign of unique, different from the rest and different account of the song to bring about changes in the social dynamics and change in the manner of thinking of the people (Silvio, 2002). The prevailing state of affairs with the increasing in the crime rates and the increase in the criminalization of the youth corresponding with the degradation of social and moral value have been reflected by the medium of the song “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. The use of the Folsom Prison as the venue for the presentation of the song “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, his own background and the broader social, cultural and political backdrop of the situation have been the factors that have immensely contributed to set the perfect tone for the launch of the song and the message that the song sough to communicate to the society through the representation of the emotions of the prisoners (Silvio, 2002).
The excerpt from the Folsom Prison Blues that presents the mood of the song and the larger social, cultural and political stature and prevailing conditions can be understood well through the lines quoted
I hear the train a comin'
It's rollin' 'round the bend,
And I ain't 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 lines present the frustration, confinement, melancholy and solitude of the lives of the prisoners and as a representative of the indifferent society the train treads along its path fast and impatient to reach its destinations with no regard for the prisoners rotting inside the prison in the hope that the train may take him out of the hell and let him live the numbered days of his life as a free man, but in vain (Hilburn, 2000).
The use of songs and music as a medium to bring about changes in the society has been for long regarded as highly appealing and potent force and this has been in active practice since the dawn of time when the soldiers would be made to listen encouraging tunes in order to urge and motivate them to charge the enemy in adverse conditions of war (Hartley and Schiaffini-Vedani, 2008). The role of music over the years has evolved and has been subjected to transformation trends and shifts in dynamics but the importance and vitality of songs have increased in the modern day. The use of songs and the influence of key artists in bringing about prominent social changes and changes in the manner of thinking of the people was rampant and prominent in the late60’s as well as the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash serves to be a glaring example of the extent to which and the ways in which songs can influence the various facets of the society, the cultural and political discourses ad the manner of the use of a particular genre and style of music (Grosch and Bloom, 2003).
In the case of the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash the song has been used as a potent instrument to bring to effect significant changes and transformations in the society as well as the culture and political dynamics of the prevailing time when the album was launched in the late 60’s. as a matter of fact, the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash provides the perfect platform for the future artists of the society and the ones working for the representation and the emancipation of the lives of the prisoners and through the medium of the “Folsom Prison Blues”, Johnny Cash was able to challenge the stereotypes and change the order of things prevailing in the society and culture of that given time (Forman, 1999). The use of the Folsom prison has been remarkable in the sense that probably for the first time the stage of the prison was set to experience a performance or an event that sought to present a musical event meant to appeal to the emotions of the prisoners and make them laugh and fill them with positivity, hope and optimism, the elements that have been missing from the lives for long (Evans and Williams, 1973).
The accounts of some of the people who stood as witnesses to the event and to the mood, tone and scene of the environment, with prison guards with guns guarding the lobby and the corners of the hall, the mood of scene, the tension, apprehension and mental agony among the prisoners and the performers and the sense of uncertainty coupled with a sense of excitement set the stage for an event that would either see the Johnny Cash count back on life or absolutely lose it, incidentally, the same effects that the audience of that night experienced after the successful carrying out of the musical event (Crosby, 2004). The appeal and the essence of the strong message of the song in disguise was such that it rocked the society and the foundations of the stereotype as much as it did the outlook towards life of the prisoners that night and these are the most prominent treasons, apart from the aesthetic value of the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, that had attributed the song the special status it still is remembered for. As a matter of fact, the influence of “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash has been remarkable owing to the fact that the song sough to the break the conventional use of American popular song for the sole purpose of entertainment to have become a medium of force for instilling hope, positivity and a sense of optimism into the lives of the people who had given up on their lives and for who death seemed to e the only envisaged goal (Charosh and Finson, 1996).
Moreover, the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash has been remembered through the decades also owing to the fact that the underlying message of the song as represented through the lines that are quoted under
I bet there's rich folks eatin'
In a fancy dining car
They're probably drinkin' coffee
And smokin' big cigars
Well I know I had it comin'
I know I can't be free
But those people keep a-movin'
And that's what tortures me
Also sought to bring to the fore the indifferent and isolated lives of the elites of the society and the way in which the prisoners were seen as the astray of the society and whose futures belonged to the walls of confinement of the prisons and for who the prison was the home. The indifference and isolation and the neglect shown by what is regarded as the mainstream society has also been a matter that has been at the core of the song “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash (Charosh, 1997).
The impact of the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash in bringing about change and transformation in the society and the political and cultural dynamics of the society can be related to the underlying message and the appeal of the presentation of the song.
Though mainly negative in approach, the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash has been remarkable owing to the hint of positivity it has been able to instill into a matter so negative and often considered a taboo about the lives of the prisoners. The emotions and the context reflected through the lines mentioned below helps understanding of the inner meaning of the song as it applies to the given case and the broader social, cultural and political context of the prevailing times of the late 60’s (Cash, et al. 2004).
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 relational approach adopted by the Johnny Cash reflected in the lines,
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 whistle blowin'
I hang my head and cry
These lies present the aspect and the manner in which the song has represented the context and have also been another important facet of the influence of the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash on the given perspectives. The influence of the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash on the society and culture of the late 60’s discourse of the use of American popular music and the use of train ad prison genre and folk music and the manner in which the two aspects have been brought into confluence in the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash has been another of the most striking features of the song by Johnny Cash and one of the many reasons for its prodigious popularity and marvelous success (Atkinson and Long-Wilgus, 2003).
So far the association with prison song and depicting the life of solitary prisoner is concerned there have been quite some accounts of lyrics and songs that have been composed in the early 50’s and late 60’s. However, the “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash has been able to carve a niche out of its own so far the appeal and the style of presentation amidst the tension and social and political discourse of the time with a marked era of criminalization of youth and the indifference meted out by the so called mainstream and the elite of the society has been a remarkable feat only a handful artists of that era have been able to achieve (Keillor, 2011).
The appeal and popularity of Johnny Cash in his account “Folsom Prison Blues” can be related to the fact that the use of American popular music and the confluence between prison and train folk genre has been presented in a manner so as to appeal to the moral conscience of the people and lend attention towards the plight and sufferings of the prisoners who lay detached from the external world and from the mainstream society who reject them as being the degraders of the moral aesthetics and the calm of the society (Allen, 2009). Hence, the influence and the appeal of Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash has been marked with a sense of being sensitive to the matters regarding which the society and the people, at large seem to be indifferent towards and the people who remain detached from our lives and even the discourses of the literature on the music and poems of the late 60’s. As such, the influence of Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash can be related to its aesthetics values, the effect on the cultural and social dynamics of the time as well as today and also on the political context of the time the song was launched and the lyrics for the same prepared (Jennings, 2008).
The account of the Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash has been remarkable owing to the time of the launch of the song, the social, cultural and political aspects that prevailed at that time as well as the appeal and the message it sought to communicate to the audience. The life history of Johnny Cash, his addiction of drugs, the scene, mood and atmosphere at the Folsom prison on the night John Cash was supposed to perform and the response, reception and perception of the song, the singer and the people it was meant for that followed all had made the song remarkable in the history of American popular genre and made it claim its spot in the top 10 recordings of all time in the American popular music genre (Cash, et al. 2004).
Allen, D. (2009). Tm At Folsom Prison: A Critique of Abrams and Siegel. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 6(1), pp.9-12.
Atkinson, D. and Long-Wilgus, E. (2003). Naomi Wise: Creation, Re-Creation, and Continuity in an American Ballad Tradition. Lied und populäre Kultur / Song and Popular Culture, 48, p.340.
Cash, J., Cusic, D., Carter, E., Cash, R., Cash, J., Routh, J., Arnette, A., Cash, J., Winston, N., Atkins, J., Johnson, H., Carter, A. and Carter, M. (2004). Johnny Cash. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.
Charosh, P. (1997). Studying Nineteenth-Century Popular Song. American Music, 15(4), p.459.
Charosh, P. and Finson, J. (1996). The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song. American Music, 14(1), p.111.
Crosby, I. (2004). Prison blues. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 51(1), pp.25-26.
Evans, D. and Williams, R. (1973). Robert Pete Williams: Those Prison Blues. Ethnomusicology, 17(3), p.595.
Forman, S. (1999). A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song (review). American Jewish History, 87(2), pp.243-245.
Grosch, N. and Bloom, K. (2003). American Song: The Complete Companion to Tin Pan Alley Song.Lied und populäre Kultur / Song and Popular Culture, 48, p.282.
Hartley, L. and Schiaffini-Vedani, P. (2008). Modern Tibetan literature and social change. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hilburn, R. (2000). Johnny Cash.
Jennings, D. (2008). Sing me back home. New York: Faber and Faber.
Keillor, G. (2011). Good poems, American places. New York: Viking.
Silvio, T. (2002). Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song. American Ethnologist, 29(4), pp.1013-1014.
Smalley, R., Henze, Yamash'ta, S., Takemitsu, and Davies, P. (1972). Prison Song. The Musical Times, 113(1558), p.1194.
Streissguth, M. (2004). Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
Wicke, P. and Cohen, R. (2002). Rainbow Quest. The Folk Music Revival & American Society, 1940-1970. Lied und populäre Kultur / Song and Popular Culture, 47, p.220.
Widmaier, T. (2001). Hitler & Hell. American WarSongs 1933-1947. Lied und populäre Kultur / Song and Popular Culture, p.266.
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