The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
In the classic "Folsom Prison Blues," Johnny Cash sings:
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
My friend Doug Shaker asks: Why, if he shot a man in Reno, is he, as he puts it in the prior verse, "stuck in Folsom Prison"—a California State penitentiary?
This sounds a bit like a criminal procedure exam question: Explain all the reasons why he could have ended up in California prison. There are many possible explanations.
I thought at first that this was pure poetic license—Cash needed "Reno" to rhyme with something else. But a look at the verse shows that's not correct (although it does provide a kind of false rhyme with "blowin'"). He could've used any two-syllable town name (with the emphasis on the first syllable—what the poets call a "trochee"): Merced, Fresno, Jackson, or even Tahoe. [Tahoe would be a good one—it borders Reno, leading to the intriguing possibility that the shooting took place right at the border, with the shooter in California and the deceased in Reno (or vice versa), leading to a nice jurisdictional battle between the two States over who can prosecute him and where he can be prosecuted.]
An alternative explanation is that he wasn't actually charged with a crime for having shot a man in Reno (just to watch him die); he's in California prison because of some subsequent offense committed in California, and he's just reflecting, as country singers are wont to do, on his evil life and evil ways.
And there's another geographical curiosity in the song. The first verse goes like this:
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.
I'm thinking: down to San Antone? A train a-rollin' from Folsom, which is just outside Sacramento, and ending up in San Antonio?
It reminded me of "The Great Western and Pacific Railway Company"—the stock market scam that is one of the great 19th century British novels, Anthony Trollope's fabulous "The Way We Live Now." The G.W.P.R.C. was raising money ostensibly for a railroad line from San Francisco to the Gulf of Mexico at Veracruz, though actually no one had the slightest intention of laying a single mile of track—the point of the enterprise was just to issue stock and to fleece the unsuspecting public.
To my surprise, though, it turns out that there is indeed such a line—the old Southern Pacific (now part of the Union Pacific Railroad Company), which ran a line in the 1860s from San Francisco to San Diego, and which was extended in 1883 all the way through San Antonio to New Orleans. So there you go.