Romanticizing Incarceration: Imagining Imprisonment in Cash, Presley, and Lady Gaga

Dieser Beitrag wurde von Tuula Virta im Rahmen des Seminars “Sound of da Police – Zeitgenössische Musik im Kontext von Kriminalität, Kriminalitätskontrolle und Strafjustiz” im Sommersemester 2013 an der Universität Hamburg verfasst.

In three signature songs by three major musicians, prison and imprisonment play a central role. Prison and the artist’s view on imprisonment is informed especially by their chosen genres of music and its role in popular music has evolved over time. Specifically, folk music, early rock’n'roll, and modern techno-pop will be examined.

Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues (1955)

Born to a working-class family in rural Arkansas during the Great Depression, Johnny Cash grew up in the era characterized by social turmoil, including ubiquitous racism. His father, Ray, was a violent man and an unapologetic racist who boasted of attending several lynchings [BBC News, ‘Johnny Cash and his prison reform campaign’]. The young J.R. Cash, as he was known then, began working in the cotton fields at the age of five and his family’s personal and financial struggles later influenced the working-class themes of his music.

‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is one of Johnny Cash’s defining songs as an artist. The song was written and released in the mid-1950’s, during the peak of Cash’s popularity as a musician. By the time the ’60’s rolled around, his career began to wane quite a bit until 1968, when he decided to perform live at a number of prison venues in order to encourage nationwide prison reform, including the eponymous Folsom.

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Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues (Live performance, 1959)

Despite Cash’s well-documented avoidance of any long-term imprisonment, the lyrics of Folsom Prison Blues are sung from the perspective of someone who has committed murder and recognizes that his punishment is justified ...

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