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Since we've already talked about the two versions of "Folsom Prison Blues" that exist, the original 1955 recording and the live version cut in 1968 at Folsom Prison itself, let's take a look now at how the two versions differ.
First of all, the melody, rhythm, and bluesy structure of the original recording is a more or less direct ripoff of Gordon Jenkins' "Crescent City Blues." There's a reason the original version faded into obscurity: It's part of an experimental album by Jenkins, a narrative of seven "dreams" that fade into one another and don't have any real direction. The melody is comprised of a simple E-A-E-B7 chord progression, which is ripe for embellishment. Cash upped the tempo, making it more of an urgent, guitar-driven beat than the big band, shmoozy original.
So, yes. Cash did plagiarize the music, but he certainly made it a whole lot better.
The second version, the live recording, is really what propelled the song to fame, mainly because of all the "extra" sounds that happen throughout. According to music writer Michael Streissguth, the sound of an inmate hollering "Woo!" after Cash's "I shot a man in Reno" line as well as the booming P.A. announcements were actually dubbed in by producer Bob Johnston in post-production. In reality, the inmates were relatively controlled and quiet during the performance so as not to upset the prison wardens.
In any case, the sound of the crowd throughout, the sporadic cheers, and the echo of Cash's voice off the cement walls all give the recording a raw feel that is perfect for the setting and the emotion invoked by the music. Johnston created a soundscape of Folsom Prison that was decidedly larger than life and invoked an almost surreal and romanticized vision of hardship in the U.S.A.
The album was a masterpiece of musical creation that took the combined efforts of Cash, Johnston, June Carter Cash, the media, and a whole lot of post-production work in order to carve out the perfect picture of Cash: a compassionate, gritty, no-nonsense dude whose deep baritone and blunt lyrics personified the promise of the American Dream.
In his book about Johnny Cash's concert at Folsom Prison, author Michael Streissguth describes the infamous jail as a place from which nightmares are born:
Folsom growls at visitors, however long they plan to stay. Inside, sharply textured granite walls are as thick as the length of a man, and they rise to high ceilings that stretch out over the inmates like a steel sky. Windows line the top walls, far out of reach of the prisoners, permitting only a muted light which drifts down to the cell block floors, like a fog. The dirty glow inside reveals a maze, a series of box-like rooms and rifle-barrel corridors through which citizens circulate from cell to job to mess hall to exercise yard to cell. Halfway up the walls, perched on gunwalks, unsmiling prison guards peer down on the daily commute, ready to cut down with their polished rifles anyone who would disrupt the gray routine. (Source)
Folsom Prison is the kind of place that will drive a man crazy, and many of the inmates arguably are already psychotic, so it's hard to imagine the kind of stuff that goes on in these guys' minds, many of whom are trapped for life in this cement labyrinth.
Among the more famous inmates of the prison: Erik Menendez (serving life for murdering his parents), Rick James (of "Superfreak" fame, did two years for assaulting two women), Marion "Suge" Knight of Death Row Records (assault, extortion), and Charles Manson (one of the most notorious serial killers in the world, convinced his cult-like followers to kill Sharon Tate and nine others in 1969).
Growing up in a hard-working cotton-farming family in Arkansas in the wake of the Great Depression, Johnny Cash's humble origins helped shape the charismatic man he later became: the all-American boy who had to struggle with his own demons, even while taking pity on all other suffering people, including Native Americans and prisoners.
After a brief stint sweeping floors in an auto factory after high school, Cash enlisted in the Air Force and served time in Landsberg, Germany; it was during this period that he formed his first band and began songwriting. However, it wasn't until over a decade later, in the late '60s, that his career reached epic heights with the popularity of his prison tour and subsequent albums.
When we think of the music of the '60s these days, Johnny Cash probably isn't the first thing that springs to mind. Maybe it's because his rough and edgy mix of country, rock, and American folk music had little resemblance to the psychedelic pop rock acts from England—think the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—that we all associate with the decade of LSD and flower power. Growing up in a hard-working farming family in the American South groomed a much different performer than the young lads from across the pond who changed rock and roll. But we need to keep in mind that the late 1960s marked the zenith of Johnny Cash's decades-long musical journey, and his prison tours produced some of the most influential and critically acclaimed albums of the 20th century.
At the same time, Cash was working to pull himself out of the hellhole he had made of his personal life in the earlier part of the decade and put his career back on track. Cash became a poster child for perseverance, and it was his fighting spirit and refusal to back down that kept him going through even his darkest hours.
He once said, "Self-esteem and perseverance and confidence are all important, but the first thing is to know what you want to do. Set that goal out there and never lose sight of it, and work toward it. And know that there are going to be byways and sidetracks, but keep persevering and keep on, and do what you know that you want to do." (Source)
Cash's life during the '60s was one of enormous transition and growth. He'd just emerged from a period of serious drug abuse and married June Carter, the woman who would change his life forever.
In a 1993 interview, he said, "The big thing about the music in my life, we shared it. We have a sharing marriage, and we share the road, we share the bedroom, we share the backstage, onstage, we share the music, the feeling, and the emotion, and the joy of it, you know. And the pain and the sadness of it. We share the love of our children. It would be terribly lonely not to have someone to share those things with me. And she's not only a lady who I share my life with, but she may have been the person responsible for my still being alive. She and God. Because she came along at a time in my life that I was on self-destruct, and she saw what I was doing to myself and she helped bring me back up out of it. And we've fought and worked hard to keep our feet on the ground since then. But like I say, today is a good day." (Source)
In some ways, in fact, Cash's life and music was more fully in tune with the social upheaval of the decade than the more musically adventurous work of people like Jimi Hendrix. Rather than focus on sonic experimentation, Cash chose instead to explore one of the major themes of the decade: the battle for rights and freedoms for the disenfranchised. To Johnny Cash, that meant prisoners.
Before we dive into what the lyrics of the song mean, we first should tell you that "Folsom Prison Blues" is by no means a completely original work of songwriting genius. In fact, the lyrics and music were substantially ripped off from an earlier track called "Crescent City Blues" that was written and arranged by Gordon Jenkins, sung by Beverly Mahr, and released in 1953.
Just to give you an idea of how thoroughly Cash was "inspired" by "Crescent City Blues," this website shows you a side-by-side comparison of the two sets of lyrics and the similarities are blatant, especially in the final verses which have essentially the same exact words.
The Jenkins song:
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.
The Cash song:
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 blowin', I hang my head and cry.
While the blatant stealing of music from Black blues artists by white rock and roll guys in the pre-civil rights era (ahem, Elvis) was a common act, it's surprising to note that Johnny Cash got away with his fast one on "Folsom Prison Blues" for so long, considering that Jenkins was white and relatively famous.
When the song was re-released in the '60s, Jenkins finally spoke up and Cash paid him a $75,000 settlement for stealing his tune. As Cash later told the Los Angeles Times, he was at the very beginning of his career when he penned the song and had no idea how famous it would one day become. He said, "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. Sometime later I met up with Gordon Jenkins and we talked about what had happened, and everything was right." (Source)
Significantly plagiarized or not, Cash certainly put his own unique stamp on the song, the most obvious being the change of protagonist from a bored, small-town girl to a despondent prison inmate, and the Cash version is arguably much more powerful. Not only that, but he sped up the original tune substantially and it's this air of urgency and defeat that characterizes his version most strongly.
What stands out in Cash's lyrics to "Folsom Prison Blues" is the constant movement evoked by the words. The interplay of motion (the train) with stasis (the prison) becomes the central tension in the song and perfectly embodies the paradoxical sensory experiences of a despondent prisoner at the end of his rope.
In poetry, movement is often conveyed by repetition and parallelism, and Cash's lyrics achieve both. Aside from saying the actual word "move" several times throughout the song, Cash constantly brings us back to the central image of the moving train. It's "comin'," "rollin'," with its whistle "a-blowin'" and never stops.
In fact, every part of the song is loaded with gerunds. For the non-grammarians among us, that's a verb conjugated into the present progressive (ending in -ing) to suggest continuous action. The rich folks in the dining car are "eatin," "drinkin," and "smokin," all the while being propelled through space by the motion of the train. Meanwhile, the prisoner is completely stopped and "stuck in Folsom" prison as he hears the enticing freedom of the rolling wheels and blowing whistle.
This is all juxtaposed against the prisoner's fixed memories of the past and his horrible crime which he cannot change, as well as his current entrapment behind bars. The only action verbs that comprise his everyday existence are sitting, sleeping, working, and crying, all fairly stationary activities. He exclaims that if he were to ever be freed, the first thing he would do is move away from the prison just like that lucky train.