The Homicidal Meaning Behind Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues”

Plenty of odes to drugs and stories of addiction made their way into the outlaw country songbook, from Willie Nelson‘s “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” Waylon Jennings‘ “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand,” and Hank Williams Jr.’s “In The Arms Of Cocaine,” among others.

In 1968, Johnny Cash reintroduced an older tale of a relationship that ended in murder from a lethal combination of cocaine and whiskey during his performance at Folsom Prison in California.

Videos by American Songwriter

“Little Sadie”

Originally written by Troy Junius Arnall and recorded by Roy Hogsed in 1947, “Cocaine Blues” was reworked from the 20th century folk ballad “Little Sadie.”

Along with “Cocaine Blues,” the song had several other iterations to its storyline and was also known as “East St. Louis Blues,” “Late One Night,” “Penitentiary Blues,” “Bad Lee Brown,” “Transfusion Blues”—another covered by Cash—along with other christened titles throughout the decades, and all told a similar tale.

[RELATED: 10 Songs You Didn’t Know Johnny Cash Wrote for Other Artists]

“Little Sadie” told the unfortunate tale of a man who shoots and kills his girlfriend and was sentenced to 41 days in jail. In “Cocaine Blues,” the lyrics set a different story from “Little Sadie” with cocaine and whiskey to blame: Went out one night to make a little round / I met Little Sadie and I shot her down / Went back home, jumped into bed / .44 pistol under my head.

“Cocaine Blues” follows Willy Lee, who murders his unfaithful girlfriend while under the influence of whiskey and cocaine and flees to Mexico.

Early one mornin’ while makin’ the rounds
I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down
I went right home and I went to bed
I stuck that lovin’ 44 beneath my head

Got up next mornin’ and I grabbed that gun
Took a shot of cocaine and away I run
Made a good run, but I ran too slow
They overtook me down in Juarez, Mexico

Laid in the hot joints takin’ the pill
In walked the sheriff from Jericho Hill
He said, “Willy Lee, your name is not Jack Brown
You’re the dirty heck that shot your woman down”

Said, “Yes, sir, yes, my name is Willy Lee
If you’ve got the warrant, just read it to me
Shot her down because she made me slow
I thought I was her daddy, but she had five more”

While in Juarez, Lee works as a musician to fund his drug addiction until he’s caught by the sheriff, tried, and sentenced to San Quentin for 99 years. When Cash performed “Cocaine Blues” during his Folsom Prison concert in 1968, he replaced San Quentin with Folsom.

In about five minutes in walked the man
Holding the verdict in his right hand
The verdict read in the first degree
I hollered, “Lordy, Lordy, have mercy on me”

The judge he smiled as he picked up his pen
99 years in the Folsom pen’
99 years underneath that ground
I can’t forget the day I shot that bad b—h down

Come on, you gotta listen unto me
Lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be

Cash’s “Transfusion Blues”

“Cocaine Blues” also appeared on Cash’s 1960 album Now, There Was a Song! under the title “Transfusion Blues.” In the song, Cash replaced the lyric took a shot of cocaine with took a transfusion, along with several other minor tweaks.

During his December 1969 performance at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Cash also performed “Cocaine Blues” and used the word “b—h,” which was later released on the 2002 album Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden. He later rerecorded “Cocaine Blues” for his 1979 album Silver and omitted the curse word.

The song was later covered by Hank Williams III, Merle Haggard, actor Joaquin Phoenix in the 2005 Cash film Walk the Line, and more.

In 1970, Bob Dylan covered the “Cocaine Blues” orignator “Little Sadie” on his album Self Portrait. Mark Lanegan and Neko Case also took a stab at “Little Sadie,” along with Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and Tony Rice on their 1993 collaborative album Pizza Tapes.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

'The Voice' Winner Huntley Performs "Uptown Funk" With Cruising With His Band

‘The Voice’ Winner Huntley & His Band Belt out “Uptown Funk” While Cruising in an Uber