Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

10 Best Songs About Prison

"I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Breaking Up is Hard to Do," "Dance the Night Away:" these are three of the most well-worn lyrical themes found in pop songs. But dig a little deeper into the 20th and 21st century songbook, and you’ll discover a large and varied repertoire of music directly inspired by the prison experience. In fact, there are so many examples in blues, country, rock, and hip hop of songs about prison, that you could argue getting locked up is as common a subject for a song lyric as boy meets girl. Here are 10 classic songs, most of them widely known, that support this point.

  1. "Folsom Prison Blues (Live)" performed by Johnny Cash

    This is the opening number from the 1968 live album At Folsom Prison, recorded by the late great Johnny Cash before a loud, rowdy, and — as you can hear right after Cash introduces himself — thoroughly appreciative audience. "Prisoners are the greatest audience that an entertainer can perform for," writes Cash in the album’s liner notes. "They’re not ashamed to respond and show their appreciation."

  2. "Mama Tried" performed by Merle Haggard

    Merle Haggard’s classic "Mama Tried" simply and concisely conveys the feelings of its guilt-ridden narrator, a young "one and only rebel child," who ignores his mother’s pleas to straighten up and behave and ends up in prison serving "life without parole." The respect the young imprisoned man now affords his mother comes across in Haggard’s lyrics and delivery, and offers a glimpse of redemption in the bleakest of circumstances.

  3. "Jailbreak" performed by Thin Lizzy

    Probably the cheeriest song on this list, Thin Lizzy’s "Jailbreak" is more of a metal club banger than a realistic account of escaping from an actual brick-and-mortar prison. It’s quite possible Thin Lizzy lead singer Phil Lynott just liked the threat and aggression implicit in the word "jailbreak" and crafted a lyric around it. "Jailbreak," along with "The Boys Are Back In Town," made Thin Lizzy international superstars, and both songs enjoy eternal rotation on American FM radio.

  4. "Chain Gang" performed by Sam Cooke

    Singer Sam Cooke composed, arranged, and produced nearly all of his recorded output. He’s also responsible for some of the most powerfully socially conscious songs of the 20th century, including the well-known "A Change Is Gonna Come." "Chain Gang," released in 1960, was inspired by a chance meeting with a chained group of prisoners working on a highway Cooke was traveling during a tour. The background chant is quite consciously reminiscent of the rhythm and cadences heard on field recordings of actual prisoners, including "Po’ Lazarus," included on this list.

  5. "The Mercy Seat" performed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

    Recorded while lead singer Nick Cave was in the throes of heroin addiction, the first-person lyrics of "The Mercy Seat" describe the conviction and impending electrocution of an unrepentant prisoner who may or may not be innocent of his crimes. Cave and the Bad Seeds have performed this song in a variety of ways, sometimes slowing down the tempo and stripping down the number of accompanying instruments. The relentless panicked poetry of the lyrics and simple melody of the refrain make this song a contemporary example of prison folk blues.

  6. "Murder Was The Case" performed by Snoop Dogg

    Recorded in 1994 for the soundtrack to the short film of the same name, "Murder Was The Case" dropped at a time when murder, and the possibility of gang violence, was either subtly or explicitly referenced in the lyrics of both East and West Coast rappers. On this track, Snoop Dogg is resurrected from a certain death by shooting thanks to a deal he makes with the devil who, as the devil is wont to do, sends him to prison once their deal is broken.

  7. "Po Lazarus" performed by James Carter and prisoners

    Beginning back in the 1930s, folklorist and historian Alan Lomax and his father, John, visited several prisons in the South to record and archive the inmates’ work songs. This 1959 recording by Lomax of a group of Mississippi prisoners singing the work song "Po’ Lazarus" appears on the Grammy award-winning film soundtrack O Brother Where Art Thou? James Carter, the lead singer heard on "Po’ Lazarus," was tracked down by the producers of the soundtrack, paid $20,000, and credited for his decades-old performance.

  8. "Women’s Prison" performed by Loretta Lynn

    Country singer and songwriter Loretta Lynn has never been one to pull punches when it came to the lyrics of her songs. Over the course of her career, she’s written and sung songs about spousal abuse, infidelity, and the pill, much to the horror of conservative country radio, and on more than one occasion had her music banned from the airwaves. "Women’s Prison," another great addition to Lynn’s repertoire of blue-collar women’s songs, comes from her comeback album Van Lear Rose, produced by young rock singer and guitarist Jack White.

  9. "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" performed by Public Enemy

    "I got a letter from the government / the other day / opened it and read it / it said they were suckers!" So begins Public Enemy’s "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," featuring a harrowing lyric by MC Chuck D describing his arrest and imprisonment for dodging the draft and an ensuing prison riot and breakout. It’s a fantasy of course, but one inspired by the reality of America’s out-of-control military and prison industry.

  10. "Back On The Chain Gang" performed by The Pretenders

    While the lyrics to "Back On The Chain Gang" aren’t explicitly about prison, the background chant in the refrain, directly referencing Sam Cooke’s "Chain Gang," and lines describing separation of two friends or lovers by "the powers that be," speak to a poetic "prison" from which there may be no escape. This song was written as an elegy for The Pretenders’ founding guitarist James Honeyman-Scott who died of an overdose early in their career. Perhaps referring to the troubled Honeyman-Scott, lead singer and songwriter Chrissie Hynde vows that those powers will "fall to ruin one day / for making us part."