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Johnny Cash and "Folsom Prison Blues"

Mon Dec 02, 2013 4:41 am

As requested by rjm, I am starting a separate topic on this.

Johnny Cash's classic recording of "Folsom Prison Blues" was apparently plagiarized from "Crescent City Blues" by Gordon Jenkins. Cash claims to have written the song after seeing the movie "Inside The Walls of Folsom Prison".

Early outtakes of this song that were recorded at Sun featured an arrangement similar to "Hey Porter", and the famous opening riff was nowhere to be found.

Discuss...

Re: Johnny Cash and "Folsom Prison Blues"

Mon Dec 02, 2013 6:00 am

phpBB [video]



I would say that Folsom Prison Blues owes a great deal including portions of lyrics to Crescent City Blues. This YouTube clip appears to end before the end of the song.

Re: Johnny Cash and "Folsom Prison Blues"

Mon Dec 02, 2013 10:16 am

I found this article, which is pertinent to this topic:

http://www.ckua.com/04/11/13/Gordon-Jen ... edID=12101

THE COMPLAINT: Crescent City Blues is a song that was written and recorded in 1953 by composer, record producer and bandleader Gordon Jenkins. The song was sung by his wife, Beverly Mahr, and was part of Jenkins’ ambitious 1953 concept album called Seven Dreams.

As the musical director at Decca Records, Jenkins was able to get Decca to green-light his notion of creating an experimental album that would narrate a musical journey from New York to New Orleans. As part of the record's Second Dream, the conductor steps off the train to smoke a cigarette in a Midwestern town called Crescent City. What he overhears emerging from a nearby shack is a plaintive woman's voice singing the torchy song Crescent City Blues.

Elsewhere in the early 1950s, a young Arkansas native named J.R. Cash was serving in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in West Germany. While he was in West Germany, Staff Sergeant John R. Cash saw a 1951 film called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. Around the same time, he heard Gordon Jenkins’ composition, Crescent City Blues -- and he put together a song that combined much of the melodic and lyrical structure of the song with the darker prison themes and setting of the film.

As he would later explain, Johnny Cash had no notion at the time that he would go on to pursue music professionally, so he never thought much about the copyright that might be infringing upon. As he later stated in a 1990s interview, "At the time, I really had no idea I would be a professional recording artist; I wasn't trying to rip anybody off."

After his discharge from the service, he began to for Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee – becoming a hitmaker almost immediately. It wasn’t long before Cash did eventually record the song that he called Folsom Prison Blues in 1955. He told Sam Phillips, the owner of the label as well as its chief producer, where the song originally came from. Phillips, a famously resourceful wheeler-dealer, assured Cash that he had nothing to fear and that Cash should just put his own name down as composer. As Cash would say in the 1990s, "I wasn't trying to rip anybody off."

Indeed, the song became a signature song for Cash; and there were no legal ramifications until 15 years later -- after Cash released a live version of Folsom Prison Blues on his smash-hit late 1960s album, At Folsom Prison, Jenkins finally did sue Cash for plagiarism.


THE DECISION: Cash acknowledged his artistic debt to Jenkins' work and paid the settlement that was being sought. Despite the fact that Cash's various versions of the song have sold millions of copies and that the song itself has become one of the most enduring country songs of the 20th Century, the agreed-upon sum for the settlement was only approximately $75,000.

Another wrinkle to the whole authorship question is that Jenkins himself almost certainly lifted the musical motif for his song Crescent City Blues from a 1930s recording of the same name by the great blues pianist Little Brother Montgomery. Montgomery wrote his instrumental piano piece for his longtime hometown New Orleans, which is often referred to as "The Crescent City".
______________________________________________________________-
I tried to find a recording of Little Brother Montgomery's "The Crescent City" but had no luck. I also tried to find whether or not Jenkins made public comments about this situation but was unable to find anything not covered in the above article.

Re: Johnny Cash and "Folsom Prison Blues"

Mon Dec 02, 2013 1:02 pm

Thanks!

By the way, this is a very significant musical issue. It seems behind almost every act of "plagiarism" there is yet another!

But as for Cash's claim of "no harm intended" well, he was no dummy. He "got it" -- knew what he was doing. And he hoped to get away with it, in my view. He was a great artist, but everyone has a weak spot.

There are cases where it is entirely unintentional. This wasn't one of them.

rjm

Sent From My Phabulous Galaxy Note II Phablet Using Tapatalk 4

Re: Johnny Cash and "Folsom Prison Blues"

Mon Dec 02, 2013 4:41 pm

In folk and blues music, there was a long-time tradition of preserving old melodies and either modifying the old lyrics and writing entirely new ones. In the days before a little legality known as a copyright existed, this was not an issue.

A.P. Carter visited folk singers in Virginia to learn new songs for the Carter Family to record. I can't verify this, but I believe that he claimed copyrights on all of these songs.

The "borrowing" of these melodies was commonplace in country music. Listen to:

"I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes"--Carter Family
"Great Speckled Bird"--Roy Acuff
"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels"--Kitty Wells

So it is not surprising that Johnny Cash "borrowed" part of "Crescent City Blues" to write "Folsom Prison Blues". The earlier post indicated that Gordon Jenkins did not sue until around 1968. Jenkins probably needed the money by that time.

There is also a similarity between Cash's "Understand Your Man" and Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right".

Sam Phillips also was stung by plagiarism when he released "Bear Cat" by Rufus Thomas Jr. The publishers of "Hound Dog" sued Sam in 1953 for plagiarism, and the settlement almost forced Sam to go out of business.

And yet--there was another borrowing of a tune..."Mystery Train", which was written by Junior Parker (and Sam Phillips) borrows from the Carter Family's "Worried Man Blues". Both songs sing of riding a sixteen-coach long train.

So "Folsom Prison Blues" is not an isolated story...

Re: Johnny Cash and "Folsom Prison Blues"

Mon Dec 02, 2013 4:58 pm

And here is Johnny's early version of "Folsom Prison Blues":
phpBB [video]



This version dates to late 1954 or early 1955, features a high=pitched vocal by Cash, and does not have the familiar opening and closing guitar figure that made Luther Perkins famous. However, Luther's solo was already recognizable. The arrangement sounds very similar to "Hey Porter"

Re: Johnny Cash and "Folsom Prison Blues"

Mon Dec 02, 2013 6:48 pm

Rtn 2 Sndr wrote:In folk and blues music, there was a long-time tradition of preserving old melodies and either modifying the old lyrics and writing entirely new ones. In the days before a little legality known as a copyright existed, this was not an issue.

(...)

So "Folsom Prison Blues" is not an isolated story...


Thanks for this post. This is true.

Some people have also accused Bob Dylan of being a plagiarist of earlier musicians.

The same can be said of certain ideas in Quentin Tarantino's movies.

Assuming all of that, I think that the truly important thing is the listener / viewer's reaction in front of a work.

The line between plagiarism and homage / inspiration is always a very thin one, and therefore very difficult to discern.

And now that you mention the "Hound Dog" / "Bear Cat" issue, here's Don Robey's (Peacock Records' owner, where the original "Hound Dog", by Big Mama Thornton, had been issued) letter to Sam Phillips :

9 ROBEY - 04ABR53.JPG
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Last edited by Mister Moon on Mon Dec 02, 2013 10:01 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Re: Johnny Cash and "Folsom Prison Blues"

Mon Dec 02, 2013 9:49 pm

rjm wrote:Thanks!

By the way, this is a very significant musical issue. It seems behind almost every act of "plagiarism" there is yet another!

But as for Cash's claim of "no harm intended" well, he was no dummy. He "got it" -- knew what he was doing. And he hoped to get away with it, in my view. He was a great artist, but everyone has a weak spot.

There are cases where it is entirely unintentional. This wasn't one of them.

rjm

Sent From My Phabulous Galaxy Note II Phablet Using Tapatalk 4


Why is it that we view Elvis as a naïve young man, but Johnny Cash "knew what he was doing"? If cash did tell Philips where the song came from, and Philips advised him incorrectly, then Philips is as much to blame as Cash. Cash was no more versed in business than Elvis was and so took his boss's word for it. Cash then acknowledged the debt the song owed to Jenkins fifteen years later and paid up. While $75000 seems a smallish sum, it was probably the biggest payday Jenkins ever had. He was primarily an arranger, and their payment was notoriously small even if you were working for Sinatra or Nat Cole.

To my knowledge, Jenkins never paid any money to Montgomery or acknowledged the debt his song paid to the earlier work - and that may well be why he held off until 1968 before filing a lawsuit. Jenkins song was hardly a popular hit - to file a lawsuit against Cash would have drawn unwanted attention to it and could easily have backfired against Jenkins. But, by 1968, Jenkins was barely working at all, and the risk by this point must have been worth taking.

Re: Johnny Cash and "Folsom Prison Blues"

Mon Dec 02, 2013 10:24 pm

poormadpeter wrote:
rjm wrote:Thanks!

By the way, this is a very significant musical issue. It seems behind almost every act of "plagiarism" there is yet another!

But as for Cash's claim of "no harm intended" well, he was no dummy. He "got it" -- knew what he was doing. And he hoped to get away with it, in my view. He was a great artist, but everyone has a weak spot.

There are cases where it is entirely unintentional. This wasn't one of them.

rjm

Sent From My Phabulous Galaxy Note II Phablet Using Tapatalk 4


Why is it that we view Elvis as a naïve young man, but Johnny Cash "knew what he was doing"? If cash did tell Philips where the song came from, and Philips advised him incorrectly, then Philips is as much to blame as Cash. Cash was no more versed in business than Elvis was and so took his boss's word for it. Cash then acknowledged the debt the song owed to Jenkins fifteen years later and paid up. While $75000 seems a smallish sum, it was probably the biggest payday Jenkins ever had. He was primarily an arranger, and their payment was notoriously small even if you were working for Sinatra or Nat Cole.

To my knowledge, Jenkins never paid any money to Montgomery or acknowledged the debt his song paid to the earlier work - and that may well be why he held off until 1968 before filing a lawsuit. Jenkins song was hardly a popular hit - to file a lawsuit against Cash would have drawn unwanted attention to it and could easily have backfired against Jenkins. But, by 1968, Jenkins was barely working at all, and the risk by this point must have been worth taking.


Interesting points you have made. I think money was exactly the reason Jenkins pursued the claim against Cash.

I was not aware that Cash had told Phillips about the origins of the song. I am surprised that Phillips would try to skirt the copyright issue in the wake of the "Bear Cat" controversy.

Re: Johnny Cash and "Folsom Prison Blues"

Tue Dec 03, 2013 1:44 pm

There are so many songs in country music that sound similar. For example take George Jones' "Window Up Above" and compare it to Conway Twitty's "My Heart Knows".