They’re bound to get you.
’Cause they got a curfew.
And you go to the Starkville City jail.
—Johnny Cash (1932–2003)
Johnny Cash wrote “Starkville City Jail” after his arrest in the small Mississippi town on 11 May 1965. Cash had played two shows on the campus of Mississippi State University (at the animal husbandry building and the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house) the preceding evening, and at about five o’clock in the morning, police arrested him for picking flowers.
Cash played the song during a February 1969 concert at California’s San Quentin prison that was recorded and released the following June as an album, Johnny Cash at San Quentin. As with much of Cash’s music, “Starkville City Jail” evokes an image familiar to his fans—that of the Man in Black, hardened by years of drinking and drug abuse (which likely played a role in the actions leading to his arrest)—and offers a peek into rural life and its struggles.
Listeners not familiar with Cash’s past might categorize “Starkville City Jail” as a protest song—a one-man indictment of small-town government rules and restrictions. Indeed, the image of Starkville suggested in Cash’s song seems consistent with negative public perceptions of Mississippi. However, Mississippi’s recognition of its troubled past and the state’s continued attempts to move beyond that past echo Cash’s struggles to overcome his drug and alcohol addictions.
- Johnny Cash, Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader, ed., Michael Streissguth (2003)
- Dan Malone, Reflector (September 2007)