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Top 11 Prison Songs

Written by: Frank Mastropolo

I am an expert of electricity.

My father occupied the chair of applied electricity at the state prison.

– W. C. Fields

  1. “Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley

“Jailhouse Rock” was the title song of Elvis Presley‘s 1957 film about an innocent prisoner who later becomes a star. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller discussed writing “Jailhouse Rock” for Presley in their autobiography Hound Dog.

“When it came to the blues, Elvis knew his stuff,” wrote Leiber. “He may not have been conversant about politics or world history, but his blues knowledge was almost encyclopedic. Mike and I were blown away. In fact, the conversation got so enthusiastic that Mike and Elvis sat down at the piano and started playing four-handed blues. He definitely felt our passion for the real roots material and shared that passion with all his heart. Just like that, we fell in love with the guy. ‘Let’s get started,’ Elvis said. ‘Let’s cut some records.’

“We jumped right into ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ The initial idea was just to show up at the studio to meet Elvis. But, as naturally as the winter turns to spring, we found ourselves in charge of the session. We were producing the guy. Mike worked out the arrangement with Elvis’ band – Bill Black on upright bass, Scotty Moore on guitar, D.J. Fontana on drums, and Dudley Brooks on piano. As far as the vocals went, I was amazed to see that Elvis was happy to hear me sing the song with what I considered the right attitude. He was following my vocal cues.”

 

  1. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando and Dawn

Russell Brown was inspired to write “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” after reading a Readers Digest story about a Union soldier released from Andersonville Prison after the Civil War. The soldier asked his girlfriend to tie a handkerchief on the town’s oak tree if she wanted him to get off the stagecoach.

Brown told Classic Bands that co-writer Irwin Levine made a few changes and the song was finished in 15 minutes. “He said, ‘I love that story, but handkerchiefs, they have snot in them. Disgusting.’ I said, ‘Well, what can we do about that?’ He said, ‘Let’s change handkerchiefs to ribbons. That’s prettier.’ I said, ‘I like that.’ And he said, ‘Stagecoach … that’s yesterday. Let’s make it a bus.’ I said, ‘I love it.'”

Getting the song recorded, said Brown, was much tougher. “Nobody wanted to hear it. We first played it for Ringo Starr. The people who listened for Ringo Starr put their hands on the guitar and said I should be ashamed of showing songs like this to people. It’s ridiculous about a ribbon in a tree. We should be ashamed of ourselves. It could ruin us and to never show this song to anybody again. The guy’s name was Al Steckler. He was the head of A&R for Apple Records in New York.”

Ultimately Tony Orlando and Dawn reached No. 1 with “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” in 1973. Since then yellow ribbons have been used as a sign of support for hostages and members of the military.

  1. “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” by the Bee Gees

Released in 1968, “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” was the first of the Bee Gees‘ Top 10 hits in the U.S. The song was written by brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb.

“This is about a prisoner on death row who only has a few hours to live,” Robin told The Mail on Sunday. “He wants the prison chaplain to pass on a final message to his wife. There’s a certain urgency about it. Myself and Barry wrote it. It’s a bit like writing a script. Sometimes you can sit there for three hours with your guitar and nothing will happen. Then in the last ten minutes something will spark.”

Robin elaborated in the liner notes of the 1968 album Idea. “It was like acting, you see, we said, let’s pretend that somebody, his life is on the line, somebody’s going to the chair. What would be going through their mind? Let’s not make it doom and gloom but sort of an appeal to the person he loves. Because right now that’s all he cares about. Regardless of whether he’s done a bad thing, he is a human being, and he’s sending out this last message.”

 

  1. “Back on the Chain Gang” by the Pretenders

“Back on the Chain Gang” was recorded in October 1982, months after Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of a drug overdose. “That was a song I was writing and I had shown Jimmy Scott some of the chords,” vocalist Chrissie Hynde told Blue Railroad. “And I was working on this song which he liked, and then he died, and it turned into more of a tribute to him.”

“When it came to her vocals, Chrissie was great so long as nobody else was in the room,” engineer Steve Churchyard recalled in Sound on Sound. “The band, everybody was kicked out. They all went upstairs and played pool, and nobody was allowed to come back down until we’d got them.

“On the surface, Chrissie was all business when it came to this song – let’s get this done, and don’t let anybody in the control room or else you’ll suffer the wrath of Chrissie. If she was at all acerbic, then rightly so. The studio is never a very natural environment in which to sing, and so we’d do anything we could to make her comfortable. If you catch her on the wrong day, things can be heavy, but she can also be very funny, and she was very easy to work with when we did ‘Chain Gang.’ Only later did I realize how emotional it must have been for her.”

  1. “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was the middleweight boxer who was tried and convicted twice for the murder of three people in 1967. In 1973 Carter finished his autobiography, which he sent to celebrities in the hope they would help with his appeals. Bob Dylan read the book and in 1976 wrote “Hurricane” with Jacques Levy.

“The people from the Hurricane Carter movement kept calling me and writing me,” Dylan recalled in Written in My Soul. “And Hurricane sent me his book, which I read and which really touched me. I felt that the man was just innocent, from his writings and knowing that part of the country. So I went to visit him and was really behind him, trying to get a new trial. So that was one of the things I brought to Jacques, too. I said, ‘Why don’t you help me write this song and see if we can do something?’ So we wrote ‘Hurricane.'”

In 1985 Carter’s conviction was overturned and he was released from prison. Carter died in 2014 at 76.

  1. “Midnight Special” by Johnny Rivers and Creedence Clearwater Revival

“Midnight Special” originated as a folk song that dates back to the 1920s. Lead Belly recorded the song in 1934 at Angola Prison, a version that has been adapted by artists that include the Beatles, Little Richard, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings notes that according to legend, “if the lights of the midnight train were to shine through the bars, the inmates felt, the warden would set you free.

Harry Belafonte’s 1962 version marked the first official recording by Bob Dylan, who played harmonica. Two of the most popular versions were released by Johnny Rivers in 1965 and Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969 on the Willy and the Poor Boys LP. The Rivers cover was used as the theme for the ’70s TV show The Midnight Special.

Johnny Rivers

 

Creedence Clearwater Revival

  1. “Green, Green Grass of Home” by Tom Jones

“Green, Green Grass of Home,” written by Curly Putman, was already a popular country tune when Jerry Lee Lewis recorded it in 1965. The song’s story is told by a convicted prisoner on death row facing execution. He anticipates his burial under the “green, green grass of home.”

Tom Jones discovered the song during a visit to New York’s now-closed Colony Records. “I used to collect anything Jerry Lee Lewis recorded, and still do,” Jones recalled in The Mail on Sunday. “I was in New York in 1965 when I bought his country album Country Songs for City Folks. ‘Green, Green Grass Of Home’ stuck out.

“I think the lyrical content is important here. The guy in the song is really in a jail cell, but you don’t know until the end. That got to me. Good God, it paints a picture and yet a lot of people who love ‘Green, Green Grass Of Home’ don’t even realize that. This is about a man who is going to be hanged and he’s just reminiscing on the precious parts of his life.

“It made me think of Wales when I recorded it – ‘the old home town looks the same.’ When I went back to Pontypridd in those days, getting off the train from London, those words would ring true. It seems like a lot of people relate the sentiment to their home too.”

Tom Jones

 

Jerry Lee Lewis

 

  1. “Rubber Bullets” by 10cc

10cc‘s “Rubber Bullets” was controversial upon its 1973 U.K. release because the British Army used the ammunition against rioters in Northern Ireland. “Rubber Bullets” was written by bandmates Lol Creme, Graham Gouldman and Kevin Godley. The song begins with “I went to a party at the local county jail,” a nod to Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.”

“The lyric is essentially about a fictitious prison riot, taken from a fictitious black and white movie from the era of James Cagney,” Godley told Uncut. “We were big movie buffs in those days, me and Lol, so it was one of those kind of films … you know, with a prison riot, and there’s always a padre there, and a tough cop with a megaphone. It was caricaturing those movies.
But the chorus talks about rubber bullets, which weren’t invented until the 1970s by the British government to quell the troubles in Northern Ireland. So it didn’t make any sense at all. But it just worked.”

 

  1. “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” by Moby Grape

The underrated San Francisco band Moby Grape recorded “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” in 1968 for the Wow/Grape Jam LP. Its co-writers, guitarist Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson, told us that the lyrics are rooted in fact.

“My drivers license had expired so they wrote me up and in San Mateo you had to go to court if you wanted to fight the thing,” recalled Stevenson. “I had just come down from Seattle and hadn’t been there long enough, I thought maybe I can get a little mercy here because even though it’s expired I’m down here in a different state, I really hadn’t gotten to it yet. So I went into the courtroom and prior to my case, there was a very attractive young lady who had pretty much the same condition I had. And the judge said, why don’t you go ahead, we’ll give you a warning this time. Get all this stuff straightened out and we’ll just give you a warning. Well, there were a couple of other cases that went by and I thought, ‘oh man, I got it made.’ I got up there and I guess I didn’t look like that girl [laughs] and he certainly didn’t give me the same verdict.”

“As soon as we got back to this little club we were playin’ at, I sat down on the stage and started singing, ‘Murder in my heart for the judge,'” added Miller. “Some of the original words I had to change: ‘Fat old bastard wouldn’t budge.’ We didn’t do that. ‘Fat old judge wouldn’t budge.’

“We had to be careful. And the funny thing is, it was about 20 years ago or so, I was in court in Marin County and the judge came out with that album. And I said, ‘Oh no, your honor, I knew this would happen. But I didn’t mean it, your honor, I didn’t even mean it then. I don’t have no murder in my heart for nobody.’ So the whole courtroom laughed and it was in the Marin Sun the next day with the judge holding up that album in the newspaper. That was funny.”

 

  1. “I Shall Be Released” by The Band and Bob Dylan

Though written and recorded by Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Released” was first recorded by The Band in 1968 for the Music From Big Pink album. Richard Manuel sang lead vocals with Rick Danko and Levon Helm adding harmonies. While the song is told in the voice of a prisoner who longs for freedom, it has been described as a religious plea for release from sin.

Rolling Stone reported that in the mid-’80s, David Crosby repeated the song’s chorus to himself – “Any day now, I shall be released” – while serving nine months in a Texas prison on gun and narcotics charges. “I wrote it on the wall,” said Crosby. “It took me hours. But I did it. And I remember taking heart from it.”

The Band

Bob Dylan and The Band from The Last Waltz

  1. “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash was known for his concerts staged in prisons. Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” a country hit in 1955, was the song that triggered the trend. “I had a song called ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ that was a hit just before ‘I Walk The Line,'” Cash told NPR. “And the people in Texas heard about it at the state prison and got to writing me letters asking me to come down there. So I responded and then the warden called me and asked if I would come down and do a show for the prisoners in Texas.

“And so we went down and there’s a rodeo at all these shows that the prisoners have there. And in between the rodeo things, they asked me to set up and do two or three songs. So that was what I did. I did ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ which they thought was their song – you know? – and ‘I Walk The Line,’ ‘Hey Porter,’ ‘Cry, Cry, Cry.’ And then the word got around on the grapevine that Johnny Cash is all right and that you ought to see him.

“So the requests started coming in from other prisoners all over the United States. And then the word got around. So I always wanted to record that, you know, to record a show because of the reaction I got. It was far and above anything I had ever had in my life, the complete explosion of noise and reaction that they gave me with every song. So then I came back the next year and played the prison again, the New Year’s Day show, came back again a third year and did the show.

“And then I kept talking to my producers at Columbia about recording one of those shows. So we went into Folsom on February 11, 1968, and recorded a show live.”

That live version of “Folsom Prison Blues” became an even bigger hit for Cash than the 1955 original.

“Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash

2 Responses to Top 11 Prison Songs

  1. Paul Reply

    March 13, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    Really? Care of Cell 44 by The Zombies is the Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields of all prison songs. Tony Orlando? Thought that was a retiring vet!

  2. Michael Stowe Reply

    May 7, 2017 at 9:37 am

    I would also include Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home.”

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