Songs with Earlier Histories Than the Hit Version

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Folsom Prison Blues

Based on “Crescent City Blues” by Beverly Mahr (1953).
Hit versions by Johnny Cash (C&W #4 1956), Johnny Cash (US #32/C&W #1/CAN #1 1968).

From the wiki: “Although ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is still widely thought to have been a Johnny Cash original, he based its melody and many of the lyrics on Gordon Jenkins’s ‘Crescent City Blues’ (which itself borrowed heavily from the 1930s instrumental ‘Crescent City Blues’ by Little Brother Montgomery) from Jenkins’ 1953 Seven Dreams concept album. Jenkins was not credited on the original ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ release. But, by the early 1970s, after the song had become popular, Cash paid Jenkins a settlement of approximately US$75,000 following a lawsuit.

“Cash heard ‘Crescent City Blues’ during his stint with the U.S. Air Force in Germany. 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.’ One very distinct and memorable lyric of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ that Cash can claim as being wholly original is the line ‘But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die’. Cash later recalled: ‘I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that’s what came to mind.’

“The song was first recorded in July 1955 at the Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee (at which time producer Sam Phillips assured Cash there was no reason to fear a plagiarism or copyright lawsuit from Jenkins). Like other songs recorded during his early Sun Records sessions, Cash had no drummer in the studio, but replicated the snare drum sound by inserting piece of paper (like a dollar bill) under the guitar strings and strumming the snare rhythm on his guitar. ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ was released as a single with another song recorded at the same session, ‘So Doggone Lonesome’. Early in 1956, both sides reached #4 on the Billboard C&W Best Sellers chart.

“Cash opened most all of his concerts with ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, after greeting the audience with his trademark introduction, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,’ for decades. On January 13, 1968, Cash performed the song at Folsom Prison itself. (According to Michael Streissguth, the cheering from the audience following the line ‘But I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die’ was added in post-production. Prisoners were careful not to cheer at any of Cash’s comments about the prison itself, fearing reprisal from guards.) This recording was then released on the At Folsom Prison album the same year.

“Released as a single, the live version reached #1 on the country singles chart, and #32 on the Billboard Hot 100, in 1968. Pitchfork Media placed the live version of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ at #8 on its list of The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s. The live performance of the song won Cash the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance (Male), the first of four he Best-Performance awars won in his career, at the 1969 Grammy Awards.”

Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955):

Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues” (1968):

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