The Magic And Controversy Behind “Folsom Prison Blues”

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In the movie Walk The Line, Joaquin Phoenix Johnny Cash performs “Folsom Prison Blues” after Sam Phillips tells him to sing a song that actually matters. It’s quite the contrast from what country music is today.

Of course, “Folsom Prison Blues” didn’t actually stem from Cash’s audition with Sun Records, but there is an element of truth to the scene. Cash was at his best when he recorded material he understood and made him stand out from the other crop of country artists during the time. The fact that he was on Sun Records at all helped him become one of the few country artists recognized in both country and rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s no surprise, really. After all, Cash valued sincerity himself. When Jimmie Rodgers was known to his fans as “The Singing Brakeman,” fans felt connected to him because they knew about his life. He was a storyteller who pulled stories from his own life. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that Rodgers would have a small hand in the creation of one of Cash’s signature songs – “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Well, actually “Folsom Prison Blues” tips its hat to another artist … in quite a big way. Near the beginning of his career, Cash, like any young artist, was still trying to develop new ideas for songs. Like a tortured artist, he’d jot down ideas only to scrap them the next day.

Ever since he saw a Warner Bros. movie about Folsom Prison during his time as a soldier, Cash had wanted to write a prison song. He didn’t know how to do it, however, until he heard Gordon Jenkins’s “Crescent City Blues.” Here’s that song:

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

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 blowing, I hang my head and cry

I see the rich folks eating 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

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

Yes, Cash’s song is a bit more interesting, but anyone who’s heard Cash’s famous song knows by now that there was a lot more lifted here than just a melody. The only difference between the two really is that Cash’s song had a greater appeal to rural listeners.

Of course, there’s one rather well-known line in “Folsom Prison Blues” that’s missing from “Crescent City Blues.” It would be shocking to hear a line such as “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” in 2018, so it was certainly a game changer for its time – a game changer that gave the song a strong sense of loneliness.

When Cash heard the aforementioned Rodgers sing “T For Texas,” he knew how to combine the two ideas. There’s a line in “T For Texas” that goes as follows: “I’m gonna shoot poor Thelma, just to see her jump and fall.” You do the math.

When Cash presented Phillips with the song, Phillips didn’t really seem to care that a large portion of the song was lifted elsewhere. However, he wasn’t confident in Cash’s ability to really nail the song, so much so that at one point, the song was supposed to be sent to Tennessee Ernie Ford. After some convincing otherwise (and also after adding a much faster tempo to “Folsom … “), the song become the famous Cash composition we know it as today. The song received a half-page advertisement in the Jan. 21, 1956 edition of Billboard. It was the hit that helped Cash finally quit his day job at Home Equipment Company so he could be what he had always wanted to be – a musician.

Phillips would be right about one thing when Cash approached him with “Folsom Prison Blues.” Musicians did steal various bits and pieces from other songs to craft their own quite a lot, and it wasn’t uncommon for musicians during this time to outright record other hit songs to try and compete with them. Unfortunately, for Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues” crossed the line.

In the early 70s, after Cash had a career resurgence and was seen as a national figure everywhere, Jenkins filed suit in U.S. District Court in New York, charging Cash for copyright infringement for using so much of his own song, “Crescent City Blues,” when crafting his own arrangement. Cash eventually paid Jenkins $75,000 to waive all future rights and royalties to the song.
Despite “Folsom Prison Blues” not quite originating from Cash’s mind (at least not 100 percent), it’s hard to deny that the song isn’t his in terms of its impact. When he played the infamous Folsom Prison on Jan. 13, 1968, the inmates looked forward to hearing that song, especially when the man singing it felt a deep connection to them. While the original composition reached No. 4, the re-recording from the live album over a decade later spent 18 weeks on the country charts, with four of them at No. 1.

This piece was written thanks to the following sources:

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