Anyone skimming through a list of early country and folk songs will quickly run into two prevalent, often piggybacked genres: “Train Songs” and “Prison Songs.”
Part of this is because of the dominance of railroads and trains, especially linking communities of the rural and heartland with the rest of urbanizing America. In those days everyone knew the train schedules, knew of the skills and hazards of railroad operations and building, and knew railway workers who were found in nearly every family. Women too!
It was a deep-seated part of American life and railroads offered work, movement, adventure, and—increasingly—escape.
No wonder that railroad trains are an integral part of American folkways and, of course, music. Our Yellow and Blue Books, as well as many others, are full of these simple songs of the sweet old days of “ridin’ the rails.”
On the other side of the musical coin, prisons, prisoners, jail time, and other forms of judicial restraint were well known by everyone—even if experienced by only a 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.
I could spend a year or so musing on only these two musical genres, but, for this go-around, I’m just going to touch on the latter–prison songs. And then, wind up with the one song that has it all—trains AND prison. And, a tale of both Cash and cash . . .
The Cash/cash backstory here tells a tale of “musical thievery” and, of course, an appropriate penalty. Oh yes, there’s some ukulele stuff too!
Now, as would be expected, many prison songs can be tear jerkers as well as admonitions to the potentially wayward.
Click or tap on 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. Dalhart’s other best-selling song was, by the way, a train song: “The Wreck of the Old 97.” It figures.
And then, of course, there were just as many prison songs with a novelty or humorous touch. Click or tap on 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 that Roger’s opus but recorded just a few years ago by a group often appearing here in Northampton. 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! Not a ukulele but some great banjo picking!
Along with those about trains, our songbooks are chock full of those prison songs that—one way or another—remind we law-abiding folks about those among us who may not be so. Ah, the well-known price of a life of crime!
So, let’s move on with probably the most well-known—and certainly most covered—train/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.
But there is a bit of musical thievery here with no jail time—unless you count Johhny Cash’s epic (and, of course, recorded) performance at California’s Folsom Prison back in 1968!
Click or tap on the 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!
Now, on to the musical thievery!
The theme, and many of the lyrics Cash included in “his” signature song were actually lifted 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 spent 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?
If any of you fellow strummers (particularly you ladies) might be interested, the lyrics for “Crescent City Blues” can be found at this link: https://genius.com/Beverly-mahr-crescent-city-blues-lyrics. This might make a nice addition for our Yellow Books!
And, of course, there are a few hundred ukulele covers of the Cash version. Click or tap on the next image or link, however, for a bit of fun!
Musical Instruments, including ukuleles, were often gifted to prisoners, particularly POWs.
As to prison-made ukuleles, I could only find a couple of examples. I’m sure there are a few more but our friends at Google need to try a bit harder! For example, here is a uke made by a World War II Australian POW, now in a local ANZAC museum.
Alas, the next is a prison-made “guitar” (a uke, sorta) made of cardboard stitched together with twisted plastic bags! It was not to be played, just displayed.
I guess that prison authorities had some misgivings about the potential lethality of long, steel guitar strings that might find an alternative use in a dreary and dangerous prison setting. SAD . . .
So, 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 masked, and . . . STAY TUNED!
And for you scientist ukers out there . . .