Read the Story Behind Johnny Cash’s Michigan City Song

Read the Story Behind Johnny Cash’s Michigan City Song
By: Jessica Campbell Last Updated: February 3, 2017

Did you know Johnny Cash wrote a song for Michigan City? Well, its not entirely about Michigan City. It’s about a prisoner at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. The chorus to the song is “Michigan City Indiana Howdy Do, Michigan City Indiana Howdy Do” and it sure is catchy.

The song’s lyrics are about Indiana State Prison’s former inmate, Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby, who was incarcerated in 1908. Grigsby was sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder after he stabbed a man to death in a bar-fight instigated through a poker game. To avoid the electric chair, Grigsby’s lawyer told him to plead guilty to the murder.

Grigsby was given a two-week parole in 1974, but was unable to adjust to the life outside the prison and decided to return to prison for two more years. Overall, his time spent locked away added to 68 years behind bars. 

Johnny Cash Article 2At the time of his release, he was the longest-serving inmate in the U.S. When Johnny Cash heard this story, he was inspired to write the 1976 song, “Michigan City, Howdy Do” on his iconic album “One Piece at a Time.”

At that time, Grigsby was named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest serving inmate in the country and with the release of Cash’s song, he and little Michigan City gained some popularity.

Grigsby was released to a nursing home at age 91 and in 1987, at age 102, he passed away.

Well Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby was paroled at 89.
He never walked on carpet, never tasted dinner wine.
His old eyes were slowly fadin’ as he walked out of the gate
And he breathed the first free air he’d breathed since 1908
Howdy do Michigan City, you’re sure pretty sight
But I know there's bigger cities and more excitin' nights
But I think your girls’re pretty and I love your children too
Michigan City Indiana Howdy Do, Michigan City Indiana Howdy Do.”
 “And down the streets of Michigan city, he walked his first free miles Howdy do Michigan City.”