Prison has always been a subject songwriters have enjoyed using from the mid-20th century onward. From describing the impact of jail on their lives to discussing the social issues caused by wrongful imprisonment, jail has become a popular subject in popular songs. Read here about some of the most popular songs about prison.
Best Songs About Prison
“Hurricane” by Bob Dylan
“Hurricane” is a protest song about the false imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Convicted of a triple murder in 1966, Carter’s case had become a source of controversy over the problems with the case. Dylan balked at recording a song about the boxer because he had begun to move away from his folk protest songs past by the mid-1970s. Eventually, “Hurricane” was released in 1976 and became a key part of the campaign to release Carter and his co-accused in the 1980s.
“Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley
The King of Rock n Roll was making the transition to a movie star in 1957 when Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller penned the classic “Jailhouse Rock.” The writers intended the song to be a parody of life behind bars, but Elvis Presley sang it straight and created a classic. In the last three decades, the romance between the inmates has seen the song become a gay anthem.
“One Love” by Nas
Hip hop has always had its roots in the inner city and Nas penned a beautiful and tragic prison tale. The song is Nas writing a letter to a friend in jail and explaining to him the changes taking place in both their lives. The most heartbreaking moment of “One love” comes when Nas reveals the inmate is a new father. The following lines explain how his girlfriend is already cheating on him with another man.
“Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash had recorded “Folsom Prison Blues” several times over the course of his career, starting in 1955. The slow tempo of the song had gradually increased until it became a classic of the “At Folsom Prison” live album. Cash had reworked the song on several occasions and is reported to have added the intense cheering of inmates in post-production. The live version rose to number one in the country music charts.
“Chain Gang” by Sam Cooke
The 1960s and 70 proved fertile ground for the prison song. Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” is one of the anthems of the jail song sector. The song explains the practice of using chain gangs to work in parts of the Deep South during the 1940s and 50. The practice had largely died away by the release of the song in 1960. “Chain Gang” enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s when a tough political position on crime led to the return of the chain gang.
“16 on Death Row” by Tupac
Tupac always had a social conscience about the plight of inner-city youth. Released after his death, Tupac’s ode to the hopelessness of inner-city life still rings true three decades later. The rapper takes the position of a youth who is sentenced to death for murder at the age of 16.
“Love in the First Degree” by Bananarama
Bananarama became global stars with their first few songs, including “Love in the First Degree.” Released in 1987 and featuring a pop sound by producers Stock, Aitken, & Waterman, the song is based on a dream. Singer-songwriter, Siobahn Fahey dreamed the band members were on trial for being in love and were sent to jail in this light-hearted take on the prison song.
“Back on the Chain gang” by The Pretenders
Chrissie Hynde admits the song is not about going to physical prison. Instead, The Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang” was about the feeling of isolation and entrapment that comes with being in an unhappy relationship. Hynde had fallen pregnant with her partner at the time, The Kinks’ Ray Davies, and seen their happiness fall away. The song reached number five on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
“Holloway Jail” by The Kinks
“Holloway Jail” was released as one of the tracks on The Kinks’ 1971 album, “Muswell Hillbillies.” The song and album were not commercial successes despite an excellent critical response. A reappraisal of “Holloway Jail” and “Muswell Hillbillies” has seen the stature of the song grow.
“Broken Love Song” by Pete Doherty
Most songwriters imagine what they would feel locked up in jail. The Libertines Pete Doherty used his own experiences in the U.K.’s Wormwood Scrubs jail to pen “Broken Love Song.” Doherty’s substance abuse problems are well-known and resulted in his jailing for failing to obey the rules of a probation order. Doherty claims he used Oscar Wilde’s poem, “The Ballad of Reading Goal” as the inspiration for his own jail experiences song.