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Johnny Cash’s “I Got Stripes” And The Prison Tale Of Redemption

Johnny Cash + I Got Stripes

Singer-songwriter Johnny Cash, also considered one of the greatest of all time, had always written songs about redemption – and “I Got Stripes” carries that message. He wrote this song with a DJ from Los Angeles, who’s also his friend, Charlie Williams, and while they’re credited for the song, they actually borrowed it from the work of Lead Belly titled “On a Monday” from his album Lead Belly Sings Folk Songs. 

The song was released as a single in July 1959 with another track, “Five Feet High and Rising.” Its simple sound arrangement made it fun, upbeat, and lighthearted, highlighting Cash’s distinct vocals. That was why it easily hit the Top 4 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and earned the Top 43 position on the Hot 100. 

Meaning Behind The Song 

“I Got Stripes” is a song about a man’s raucous prison journey – from getting arrested to receiving a guilty sentence and finally living his life behind bars. 

The stripes, which is the keyword, can be interpreted in two ways. The first one is that it’s the literal prison uniform back in the early days. The stripes were fashioned after the prison bars, and they were a symbol of disgrace. As BBC UK noted, it’s a way of “branding the prisoner as a transgressor.” Also, the design was made for easy recognition, making escape and evading recapture hard.

RELATED: Sing Along To Johnny Cash And George Jones’ Duet Version Of “I Got Stripes”

However, this has since been abolished, as it was considered unpleasant to continuously use it as a badge of shame. 

Another interpretation would be gaining a position through hard work, skill, and accumulated experience and deserving of acceptance and respect. In this case, “I Got Stripes” is also a song about redemption; despite everything, the narrator is determined to turn his life around for the better. It’s definitely a powerful message masked in a fun, charming sound. 

Sing along to Johnny Cash’s “I Got Stripes” in the video below, and enjoy some fun time with yourself. If you’re on a road trip, that’s even better! There are also plenty of other songs with the same theme in the collection of Johnny Cash’s songs, just in case you want more. 

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