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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