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Innovation/Global Risk 

Johnny Cash: How His Career Began in Folsom Prison 

By Shlomo Maital  



 Johnny Cash  & June Carter

 Johnny Cash was one of America’s greatest country music singers, popular far beyond country fans.  His career took off in large part because of a bold risk he took – he appeared before inmates in Folsom Prison, sang the song he wrote about Folsom, and then issued an album based on his live performance.  It is regarded as one of the greatest albums ever. 

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. 

   According to Wikipedia, Cash was inspired to write this song after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951) while serving in West Germany in the United States Air Force. Cash recounted how he came up with the “Reno” line: “I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that’s what came to mind.”

 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.

Cash brought along his girlfriend June Carter, also a country singer. Her performance is also on the album.  Cash got a great reception; Carter, as one can imagine, got a roof-raising one. 

 I bet there’s rich folks eatin’,  In a fancy dining car,

They’re probably drinkin’ coffee,  And smokin’ big cigars,

But 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.

     What I learn from this episode is this:  In a career, the shortest distance between two innovative points is almost never a straight line.  In Cash’s case, it was a crooked line (literally), that ran through Folsom Prison.   Cash had a rapport with the inmates and you can hear it in the album.  It showed he was not a spoiled country star but a real person, a working class singer who understood those he sang for and sang about.    Innovator:  In your career, innovate not just products or services. Innovate your career.  Take crooked paths to your destination. Take risks.  Go where others don’t dare.  You won’t regret it .

    Cash performed  at Folsom Prison itself on January 13, 1968 and the At Folsom Prison album was released the same year.  His career took off, and lasted several decades.   


     Folsom State Prison is  located in the city of Folsom, California. Opened in 1880, it is the second-oldest prison in the state of California after San Quentin. Folsom was one of the first maximum security prisons, and as such did the execution of 93 condemned prisoners over a 42-year period.



Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
January 2012
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