Johnny Cash has stripes around his shoulders

Johnny Cash has stripes around his shoulders

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: For Breaking Bad week, we talk about our favorite songs about troubles with the law.

If we’re going to talk about songs about Johnny Law, we’d be absolutely derelict in our duties to not mention Johnny Cash. And we’d be even more neglectful to not mention Cash’s most notable prison-songs album, At Folsom Prison, so I’m just going to go ahead and do that. While there are all manner of jail-friendly songs and banter on the record, my favorite behind-bars track on Folsom is “I Got Stripes,” a short little ditty written by Cash and Charlie Williams. A story song, “I Got Stripes” tells of a man arrested, jailed, tried, and convicted all in one week—and that’s just the first verse. In the second, he gets a visit from his mom and is subsequently caught with a file, sent to solitary, and forced to subsist on just bread and water. 

While some songs can glorify jail, “I Got Stripes” belies its upbeat cadence with lines about bound feet and the tendency of life behind bars to absolutely destroy someone’s existence. In Cash’s case, his arrest and quick conviction has him thrashing against the chains holding him down, resulting not in freedom but, rather, in further entanglement and a chance that those chains, “them chains,” are “about to drag [him] down.” In true Cash form, it’s an eerie little social message wrapped up in a very catchy package.