Music Throwback Saturday: Crescent City Blues

johnny cash.folsom

Eurreal Wilford “Little Brother” Montgomery (April 18, 1906 – September 6, 1985) was an American jazz, boogie-woogie and blues pianist and singer from Louisiana.

From his 2013 Blues Hall of Fame induction: “Montgomery first recorded in Chicago in 1930 but spent most of his early professional years in south Mississippi, where he played lumber camps, cafes and nightclubs, sometimes in a blues mode, other times leading a more jazz-oriented dance band. Among the bluesmen influenced by his music in Mississippi were Skip James, Sunnyland Slim, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, and especially Willie Dixon.” Among his songs was an instrumental called Crescent City Blues.

Gordon Jenkins (May 12, 1910 – May 1, 1984) I associate as a producer and/or arranger for Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, The Weavers, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole. “He also began recording and performing under his own name… His ‘Seven Dreams’ released in 1953 included ‘Crescent City Blues’,” featuring singer Beverly Mahr, Jenkins’ wife, borrowed liberally from Montgomery’s version. Jenkins is now in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.

Johnny Cash (February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003) was inspired by a movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), written and directed by an actor, screenwriter and director named Crane Wilbur. Cash stole even more heavily from the Jenkins version to create Folsom Prison Blues, which he wrote and first recorded in 1955.

The lyrics are nearly identical, except for the points where Cash changes the perspective of the narrator. For example, both begin “I hear the train a comin’/It’s rollin’ ’round the bend.” The Jenkins song follows that with “And I ain’t been kissed lord/Since I don’t know when,” but Cash follows it with the darker “And I ain’t seen the sunshine/Since I don’t know when.” All of the verses have this dichotomy, with an identical narrative path and stark differences in tone. Where Jenkins’ narrator says “But I’m stuck in Crescent City/Just watching life mosey by,” Cash has his protagonist sing the far darker “But I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.”

Nonetheless, Jenkins was not credited on the original record from Sun Records. According to Cash’s manager Lou Robin, Cash acknowledged the debt to Jenkins’s song, but was reassured by Sun founder Sam Phillips that he had no reason to fear a plagiarism suit. Fifteen years later, Jenkins sued for royalties. In the early 1970s, after the song became popular, Cash paid Jenkins a settlement of approximately $75,000.

The original Cash studio version hit #4 on the country charts in 1956, but the live version from 1968 spent four weeks at the top of the country charts in 1968. It was also #32 on the pop charts and #39 on the adult contemporary charts. The live album from which it came, At Folsom Prison, went to #13 pop, and #1 country.

Johnny Cash received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996, and has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (1980) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1992), among many other honors.

LISTEN to:
Crescent City Blues – Little Brother Montgomery
Crescent City Blues – Gordon Jenkins, featuring Beverly Mahr (or Maher)
Folson Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues vs Jenkins’s Crescent City Blues