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Riffs and Licks - Folsom Prison Whose?
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Folsom Prison Whose?
In his book, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece, Michael Streissguth mentions that Cash's famous song "Folsom Prison Blues" was largely plagiarized from an earlier song by a man named Gordon Jenkins, who won a considerable settlement from Cash in 1969 after the Live at Folsom Prison album was released.

I went in search of the original, which turns out to be very hard to find. It was part of a very strange concept album that Jenkins -- an arranger and bandleader who worked with Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and others -- recorded in the early 50s. The original is an "album" in the true sense of the word, a four-disc collection of seven-inch 45s called Seven Dreams. It's a schmaltzy and portentous set, narrated by Spike Lee's father, the bass player Bill Lee, in which the "dreamer" has a sequence of seven dreams, in which he finds himself on a boat, on a train, with a beautiful girl in a meadow, and so on. The narration is embarrassing, the tunes are mostly awful, and it's quite clear why no one has ever bothered to release this on CD -- it's a heavy-handed concept album that makes the worst rock opera sound like Mozart.

The song in question is part of "The Second Dream: The Conductor," in which the dreamer finds himself the conductor on a train. There are three songs in this segment, interwoven with narration, and in the last one, the train comes to a stop and he steps out onto the back of the caboose to smoke a cigarette. From a shack beside the tracks, he hears a song.



Crescent City Blues
Gordon Jenkins, 1954


I hear the train a-comin, it's rolling 'round the bend
And I ain't been kissed lord since I don't know when
The boys in Crescent City don't seem to know I'm here
That lonesome whistle seems to tell me, Sue, disappear
Folsom Prison Blues
Johnny Cash, 1956


I hear the train a comin´, it´s rolling round the bend
And I ain´t seen the sunshine since I don´t know when,
I´m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin´ on
But that train keeps a rollin´ on down to San Antone
 
When I was just a baby my mama told me, Sue,
When you're grown up I want that you should go and see and do
But I'm stuck in Crescent City just watching life mosey by
When I hear that whistle blowin', I hang my head and cry
When I was just a baby my mama told me, son,
Always be a good boy, don´t ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry
 
I see the rich folks eatin' in that fancy dining car
They're probably having pheasant breast and eastern caviar
Now I ain't crying envy and I ain't crying me
It's just that they get to see things that I've never seen
I bet there´s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They´re probably drinkin´ coffee and smoking big cigars
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can´t be free
But those people keep a movin´ and that´s what tortures me
 
If I owned that lonesome whistle, if that railroad train was mine
I bet I'd find a man a little farther down the line
Far from Crescent City is where I'd like to stay
And I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away
Well if they´d free me from this prison, if that railroad train was mine
I bet I´d move it on a little further down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that's where I want to stay
And I´d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away
 


Cash's version is superior in every respect. The lyrics are better written and more compelling, and his performance is a driving country blues, as opposed to the original, sung by Beverley Maher, which is basically a white easy-listening arranger's idea of what a blues should sound like. But it's intriguing that such a blatant piece of plagiarism is so relatively unknown that the makers of Walk the Line could insert an obviously fictional scene of Cash working out the song while in the army. It's particularly unusual in that Jenkins was not a black blues artist who could be ripped off with impunity -- white singers were doing that continually in the 1950s -- but a white man who owned his own copyrights and had access to lawyers. I'm surprised it took him 13 years to sue.

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shunn From: shunn Date: May 31st, 2006 04:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's a very interesting bit of history, thanks. Laura and I just watched Walk the Line a few weeks ago. and I was wondering how accurate that composition scene was.

It was a great scene when he first sings "Folsom Prison Blues" for Sam Phillips. How accurate is that?
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: May 31st, 2006 06:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
I believe it's reasonably accurate, although originally I think there were several sessions. If I recall correctly (I'm away from my books at the moment), they went in and sang some gospel tunes, and Phillips told them that everyone was singing that stuff, and to find something of their own. Then they came back with "Folsom Prison Blues." I don't know if it started out as badly as the film showed, but certainly it was true that the band was pretty rough. Carl Perkins once (jokingly) called Luther and Marshall "a pair of self-made mechanics."
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: May 31st, 2006 06:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
By the way, we ran out and saw Walk the Line right away, and while I loved it, there were some significant inaccuracies and mischaracterizations. I wrote them up a while back, with an appropriate spoiler warning.
From: laurie_daniels Date: May 31st, 2006 05:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
That is fascinating! So much so that I'm searching the net for more info on it. Apparently, Cash told Sun that he'd arranged or adapted the song from Jenkins, and they put his name on it anyway? Is that right?
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: May 31st, 2006 06:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've heard that too, and it would not have been out-of-character for Sam Phillips -- a music-business cowboy -- to have gone ahead and grabbed the publishing rights for the song. Although doing that when the original author and publisher were prominent folks in the industry is pretty ballsy.
rube From: rube Date: June 5th, 2006 01:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Interesting.
Last month, I downloaded the concert as a TV episode, it's fascinating.
Johnny Cash was a great musician.
From: (Anonymous) Date: November 4th, 2010 03:06 am (UTC) (Link)

Folsom Prison/Crescent City Blues

I think the original (Crescent City Blues) is not as "Easy Listening" as you make it sound.
Yes, It's a controlled big band blues, but it has a nice lite, groovy swing to it.
To me it is not stiff (like a bunch of white guys trying to play the blues).
It also is a good recording. Nice low end on it.
It available on Johnny Cash: Roots & Branches. Amazon, Itunes...etc
P.S. I love Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues", but obviously he was turned on enough
by "Crescent City Blues" to make something of his own on it, but it's clearly
(melodically & lyrically) a "rip off".
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: November 5th, 2010 02:23 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Folsom Prison/Crescent City Blues

We have different tastes in blues, I guess; I don't particularly care for a "lite, groovy swing" in blues (or anything else). It's not stiff, no, but it's soporific. Too slow to groove, too restrained to be a slow blues.

But I didn't realize it's available on CD now; it looks like Seven Dreams in its entirety was rereleased at some point.

I'm relistening to it all now, and it's every bit as bizarre as I thought the first few times.
meckimxomac From: meckimxomac Date: July 8th, 2012 09:27 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re:

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