ANOTHER MUSICAL MUSING, 27 January 2023: Prison Songs, And A Tale of Musical Thievery, Sorta . . .


Since we are still deep in the New England Winter doldrums, it might be worthwhile to take a peek at some of the songs we play or sing that keep us “by the fireplace” on days like this. Anyone skimming through a list of early country and folk songs will run into a genre with a certain chilly greyness to them: “Prison Songs.” 

Songs about prisoners, jail time, and other forms of judicial restraint were well known by most folks—even if experienced by only a very few. 

A night spent in the “hoosegow” to dry out or as punishment for a bit of wanton revelry was common.

Less common were months, years, or a lifetime in the “pen” or on a chain gang. 

Newspapers, movies, and, needless to say, sheet music and songs on the radio kept folks reminded of the perils of punishment and, to a great extent, kept them on the right side of the law. 

As would be expected, many prison songs can be tear jerkers as well as admonitions to the potentially wayward. 

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to hear one of the first recordings of what many believe to be the granddaddy of the prison song genre, appropriately named “The Prisoner’s Song.” This version was recorded in 1925 by Vernon Dalhart, one of the more popular country (or “hillbilly” as it was known then) singers of his day. Get ready to wipe a tear or two from your eyes!

It is said that Dalhart learned this song from a cousin who had learned it while in prison.  That gives the tune some cred and, perhaps, that’s why it became one of the most played songs of the early 20th century.  

And then, of course, there seemed to be just as many prison songs with a novelty or humorous touch

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link for this 1928 Jimmie Rogers yodeling interpretation of this much older jug-band standard: “In the Jailhouse Now”:

And, just for the fun of it, here’s a string band version of the tune, written much earlier than Roger’s opus but recorded just a few years ago by a group often appearing here in our “Happy Valley.” Remember them at the Iron Horse? Click or tap on the next image for a listen to this tune not about the perils of gambling but of voter fraud! How topical!

So, let’s move on with probably the most well-known—and certainly most covered—prison song out there:  “Folsom Prison Blues.”  This became Johnny Cash’s signature song since he first recorded it in 1955, and he opened nearly all of his concerts with this rhythmically pulsating—think “passing railroad train”—prisoner’s lament.

It is, however a tale of both Cash and cash–a bit of musical thievery, but with no jail time. That is unless you count Johnny Cash’s epic performance of the song at California’s Folsom Prison back in 1968.

Click or tap on the triangle in next image or link to listen in on one of his later prison concert presentations.

Although Cash cultivated a romantic outlaw image, he never served a prison sentence. Despite landing in jail several times for various misdemeanors, he was never locked up for more than one night at a time—and never in Folsom Prison!  Still credit goes with the territory. He did have this mug shot taken at Folsom Prison just to hand out as a souvenir. Creepy!

Now, on to the musical thievery!

The theme, and many of the lyrics Cash included in “his” signature song were actually lifted (stolen!) from an earlier song titled “Crescent City Blues” written in 1950 by one Gordon Jenkins, a composer and arranger. Cash had heard Jenkin’s song earlier while serving in the Air Force in Germany. 

Jenkins, in turn, had based his melody (also used by Cash) and song title on a much earlier ragtime/jazz tune written and recorded by pianist “Little Brother” Montgomery.  Ah, evolution  .  .  .  

The upshot is that Cash, who readily acknowledged his “borrowing” but thought it unnecessary to mention it at the time, had to spend nearly $100,000 on the copyright infringement suit filed against him by Jenkins in the 1970s. Cash from Cash!

Whew  .  .  .  After all that, click or tap on the next image or link to listen to the 1953 recoding of Jenkin’s song by singer Beverly Mahr. Do these lyrics sound familiar?   

And, of course, there are a few hundred ukulele covers of the Cash version.  Click or tap on the next image or link just for a bit of fun!

Well, back to dreary reality . . .

But, as an escape from within the high stone walls, chain gangs, or work farms of this musical musing . . .

. . . stay safe, stay innocent, stay un-incarcerated, stay as masked as you should, and  .  .  .  STAY TUNED!

And, just to brighten things up for you musical scientists out there . . .

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

One thought on “ANOTHER MUSICAL MUSING, 27 January 2023: Prison Songs, And A Tale of Musical Thievery, Sorta . . .”

  1. Fantastic NohobanjoandUkulele. I really enjoy your musical turning’s of a phrase both lyrical and melodic. Thanks for creating and sharing here on this media.

    I bet you know of another gold tone portal that I stumbled over this morning,
    When I eyed the links section I hope I would find you wired in. Check it out if you haven’t already. See ya’ around. Best to you and the girls.
    jon g


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