20 Classic Songs about Prison and Spending Time in the Slammer

From the outlaws of country music to the rock n’ roll road warriors, prison often works its way into their songs, metaphorically or literally.

Cowboys like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard spent time in the slammer, and their experiences helped shape their careers. Long touring days left songwriters like Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell feeling like he was stuck in a prison.

See how bands of all kinds feel like they’re locked up with this playlist of songs about prison.

Jailhouse Rock – Elvis Presley

This classic is probably the most famous prison song. Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and ‘Hound Dog’ for Elvis, both of which were mega hits for the sexy crooner. Jailhouse Rock was also a movie Presley starred in. Women went crazy over the movie scene featuring Elvis’ dance number when his hit single plays in the background.

Related: Find this tune on the best classic songs of all time.

Jailbreak – Thin Lizzy

Rock band Thin Lizzy became infamous for their music featuring themes of rebellion. After their success with the single ‘The Boys are Back in Town,’ they recreated that magic with their song ‘Jailbreak,’ another hit about breaking free and causing some trouble. ‘Jailbreak’ appears in the film Detroit Rock City when the main character breaks out of boarding school to go to a Kiss concert.

Related: breaking the law songs playlist, best Thin Lizzy songs

Chain Gang – Sam Cooke

One of singer Sam Cooke’s biggest hits in the US, he was inspired to write ‘Chain Gang’ after encountering a group of jailed workers while traveling in Georgia. He even added real-world sounds like sledgehammers chain gang workers would use to the recording. Many consider Cooke to be the “king of soul.” He was tragically killed at a hotel in 1964, and mysterious circumstances surrounding his death fuel speculation even to this day.

Related: Listen to our playlist of songs about work.

Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash

Though Johnny Cash recorded this classic outlaw country hit in 1956 for Sun Records, it wasn’t until the 1960s that this song really took off after his live version at his Folsom Prison performance was released. After taking up the unpopular cause of prison reform, Cash did a tour of several shows in prisons throughout California and Texas. This helped give credit to his rebellious persona and revitalized his career.

Related: You may recognize this song from The Suicide Squad soundtrack.

Back on the Chain Gang – The Pretenders

Band leader Chrissy Hynde originally wrote ‘Back on the Chain Gang’ with The Kinks band leader in mind, Ray Davies. The two shared a child together. But after the tragic deaths of two of her bandmates, as she completed the song, its meaning transformed and became a tribute of sorts. The tune was released as a single about two years before the album Learning to Crawl debuted.

Rusty Cage – Soundgarden

Frontman Chris Cornell penned ‘Rusty Cage’ after a long European tour that left him with a lot of pent-up energy due to the long bus rides. After he returned home to Seattle, he sat down and focused on image-heavy lyrics for the single. Johnny Cash ultimately covered the tune in 1996, and his album it’s featured on, Unchained, scored a Grammy award.

Related: Here’s our list of songs about being trapped.

Hurricane – Bob Dylan

This biographical tune is a tribute to Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a talented boxer wrongfully accused and convicted of murder in the 1960s. While in prison, Carter worked with several people to try and clear his name. After his autobiography was published, Carter sent a copy to Bob Dylan, known for speaking out against injustice. Dylan was inspired by the book and hosted a charity concert for Carter featuring many popular artists of the day. In 1985, Carter was finally exonerated.

Related: You can also hear this song on our hurricane songs playlist.

Locked up in Jail (Prison Blues) – John Lee Hooker Overview

Set against a muted drum beat and electric guitar fills, blues legend John Lee Hooker uses his haunting baritone voice to tell the story of the trials and troubles of a man in jail. One of the key artists who influenced the Delta blues movement, Hooker was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a now-mecca of sorts for blues fans. Due to his vast body of work, Hooker is considered one of the most recorded artists in music history.

Not Even Jail – Interpol

“I pretend like no one else to try to control myself.” Rather than having to do with an actual jail, Interpol’s ‘Not Even Jail’ deals more with a mental prison developed in one’s head. The song’s lyrics are deeply poetic and use metaphors to convey the protagonist’s unhealthy mental state.

Related: Feel inspired to break free with this freedom songs playlist.

You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us In Prison – My Chemical Romance

During his band’s heavy touring days, My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Butler wrote ‘You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us In Prison.’ The long, stuffy rides with several guys crammed in a small van came to feel a lot like a prison to him. He uses the life of a cellmate as a parallelism for his life as a road warrior while touring.

Life in Prison – Merle Haggard

Haggard’s 1967 song ‘Life in Prison’ is about a man convicted of killing his lover and facing a lifetime in jail instead of getting a death sentence. Merle Haggard walked the walk when it came to his music, and much of his younger life was spent in and out of juvenile detention centers and stints in the slammer. He used his own experiences to shape the meaning of the song.

Jail Guitar Doors – The Clash

Written during his time spent in bands before he joined The Clash, Joe Strummer was reluctant to record ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ because he felt the part of his life the song represented was in the past. Finally, in 1977, bandmate Mick Jones convinced Strummer to record the tune for an upcoming album. Several artists like Guns N’ Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke covered the song.

Women’s Prison – Loretta Lynn

“I caught my darlin’ cheating. That’s when I shot him down.” Dark tales involving murder, revenge, and jail time aren’t only for male country artists. In 2004, Loretta Lynn’s award-winning Van Lear Rose album (produced by The White Stripes’ Jack White) included a thrilling number about a woman-scorned called ‘Women’s Prison.’ The tune focuses on the unique issues women go through when locked up.

Ol’ Red – Blake Shelton

Possibly one of the most unique prison songs, Blake Shelton’s timeless hit ‘Ol’ Red’ tells the story of a man who murders after catching his wife cheating on him. While in prison, he’s tasked with looking after one of the prison dogs, who ultimately help him escape. Country legend George Jones first recorded and released the tune in 1990.

Related: Grab your pup and enjoy this playlist of songs about dogs.

Still Doing Time – George Jones

Written as commentary about his own life feeling like a prisoner to addiction, both critics and fans embraced country singer George Jones’ 1980s hit ‘Still Doing Time.’ While he was experiencing immense professional success in the ’80s, Jones was dealing with a lot of strife. Many of his songs echoed his battles and demons with addiction, depression, heartache, and loss.

Related: Listen to similar songs on our broken heart songs list.

Fish in the Jailhouse – Tom Waits

“I can break out of any old jail, you know.” Tom Wait’s creative take on a prisoner escape involves the protagonist of ‘Fish in the Jailhouse’ being an expert at breaking out of jail. All he needs is “fishbones,” and he’ll be on his way back to freedom. In a twist of resounding fate in the song, the prison guards serve him fish for dinner, making it his perfect last supper before breaking out of jail with a fashioned key.

Jailhouse Blues – Lightnin’ Hopkins

“Thirty days in jail, with my back turned to the wall.” Blues master Lightnin’ Hopkins perfectly captures the ghostly qualities of the south’s delta blues with ‘Jailhouse Blues.’ With nothing but his raw vocals and a humming electric guitar, Hopkins sings about the complicated nature of being stuck in jail. Feelings of loneliness and isolation are explored as he ultimately sings to the jailer, “I just want you to open the door, cause this ain’t no place for me.”

Related: If you feel alone, see our playlist of songs about loneliness.

Way Too Pretty for Prison – Miranda Lambert

“The bars there ain’t got boys to buy us drinks.” Country star Miranda Lambert gets cheeky with her song ‘Way Too Pretty for Prison.’ Fellow country singer Maren Morris duets with Lambert for this tale about two girls who want to seek revenge against a “cheating man.” Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild helped create inspiration for the tune while visiting Lambert at her home and sharing a bottle of wine with her.

Related: Check out our playlist of revenge songs.

Out of Jail – They Might Be Giants

This 1994 song by They Might Be Giants touches on several socio-economic issues, including crime, gender roles, and romantic relationships. ‘Out of Jail’ finds the protagonist reflecting on a girlfriend who commits crimes like stealing cars and wondering what her motive is. He tries not to judge her as he confesses he couldn’t stay with her due to her behavior. Ultimately, she ends up in jail as the protagonist attempts to move on.

Related: Broken-hearted? We have a playlist of songs about getting over someone and moving on.

Prison Trilogy (Billy Rose) – Joan Baez

“Billy Rose knew trouble like the sound of his own name.” Folk songwriter Joan Baez tells the story of career criminal “Billy Rose” in her 1972 song from the album Come From The Shadows. The stories of other prisoners are also told with the repeating line, “And we’re gonna raze, raze the prisons to the ground.” This tune was released in partnership with The Innocence Project, which works with wrongfully-convicted prisoners and helps them get their cases re-opened.

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About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

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2 thoughts on “20 Classic Songs about Prison and Spending Time in the Slammer”

  1. Im Iranian, i wish I could get out of this prison called country. Listening to this songs.. so sad

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