With macabre wit, Johnny Cash brings Shel Silverstein’s chilling ballad to life, literally chronicling the final minutes ticking down to a man’s execution. Initially released on Cash’s concept album Sings the Ballads of the True West, the song found its true home when performed for the inmates of Folsom Prison in 1968.
As the narrator awaits his date with the hangman, he prattles on with grim levity about the minor indignities and mundane details of his final moments in captivity. But Cash’s stoic baritone lends gravitas, reminding us that a man’s life hangs in the balance between each casually ticked-off minute.
While the lyrics mock the spectacle of public executions, Cash’s somber restraint acknowledges the immense tragedy. With time running out, the condemned man oscillates between desperate hope and resigned fate, his nonchalant façade betrayed by his wishful praying.
By the final line, as Cash elongates each syllable while the man counts down his last “fif-teen sec-onds to go,” the façade shatters completely. We’re left haunted by a man’s petty complaints falling silent, his regrets and fears overflowing in the agonizing moment before death’s arrival.