Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Always Be a Good Boy
"Folsom Prison Blues" is so closely identified with Johnny Cash that most people think he wrote it as well as sang it, and indeed, on the original Sun single, Cash is credited as the only songwriter. Cash conceived of the song in West Germany when he was in the air force, after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, then cut it at Sun Studios on July 30, 1955. But after Johnny recorded it live at Folsom Prison in 1968 - it was the biggest hit in all of country music that year - Gordon Jenkins noticed that he had written it 15 years earlier. He sued for credit, and won $75,000.
Gordon Jenkins is kind of an odd figure to play a part in the legend of Johnny Cash. He is best known today as the guy who succeeded Nelson Riddle as Frank Sinatra's arranger and conductor, the one who really laid the schmaltz on Ol' Blue Eyes. Before that, though, he wrote and recorded songs under his own name, and in 1953, he made an experimental record called Seven Dreams, which included a track named "Crescent City Blues." I haven't heard the song, so I don't know how closely the melody tracks "Folsom Prison Blues," but if you read the lyrics, they're a bit, uh, familiar:
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 blowin', 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
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
Johnny Cash, standup guy that he was, owned up to the borrowing. "I was in the U.S. air force stationed in Germany in 53," he said in 1996. "While I was there I also had that album by Gordon Jenkins with the song 'Crescent City Blues,' which was a great inspiration for 'Folsom Prison Blues' as well.
"At the time, I really had no idea I would be a professional recording artist. I wasn't trying to rip anybody off. So when I later went to Sun to record the song, I told Sam Phillips that I rewrote an old song to make my song, and that was that. [It was apparently Phillips' decision to list only Cash's name on the label as the sole songwriter; there probably would have been some burdensome paperwork to get Gordon Jenkins involved as well.] Sometime later I met up with Gordon Jenkins and we talked about what had happened, and everything was all right."
Cash did not explain, however, why a guy who killed someone in Nevada would be doing time in a California state pen.