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BACKTRACKING

Roots of Cash's hit tunes

A collection presents other artists' versions of songs popularized by the music star, and there are intriguing twists.

August 22, 2006|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

Johnny Cash fans will find several surprises in a new retrospective CD showcasing original versions of songs the country music star made famous -- and one flat-out shocker.

Despite occasional suggestions in Cash articles in recent years that one of his signature songs, "Folsom Prison Blues," was influenced by an obscure tune called "Crescent City Blues," most fans probably assumed the connection was minor -- nothing more than the "borrowing" that goes on regularly in pop music.

But as the new CD shows, the similarity between the two songs is substantial. Cash certainly put his artistic stamp on the lyrics and arrangement of "Crescent City Blues," changing it from a tale of romantic yearning to a story of prison regret. Yet the foundation of "Folsom" is clearly found in the original, which -- in an added surprise -- was written by noted pop composer-arranger Gordon Jenkins, not some ancient bluesman. "Crescent City Blues" alone is enough to recommend the retrospective, but there is much more to also enjoy.

Various Artists

"Johnny Cash: Roots & Branches" (Hip-O)

The back story: The concept of offering original versions of hits associated with prized recording artists is a winning one that ought to be employed more often. Hip-O's "The King's Record Collection" is one of my favorite retrospectives. It's a two-volume series of the original versions of songs identified with Elvis Presley, including Arthur Gunter's "Baby, Let's Play House" and Smiley Lewis' "One Night."

In "Roots & Branches," anyone who saw the Cash biography "Walk the Line" will recognize Jimmie Davis' "I Was There When It Happened" as the gospel number Cash played during his audition for a Sun Records contract. But even longtime Cash fans will probably be surprised to learn that "Jackson," the spirited Billy Edd Wheeler song popularized in 1967 by Cash and June Carter, was originally recorded by the Kingston Trio, or that the celebrated "Ring of Fire" was earlier recorded by June's sister Anita Carter under the title "Love's Ring of Fire."

The shocker, though, is Jenkins' rare 1953 recording of "Crescent City Blues." Jenkins was one of the most respected pop composer-arrangers of the '40s and '50s, and his recording -- with vocal by Beverley Mahr -- is in a slow, bluesy big-band style, nothing like the urgent country-rock feel of "Folsom Prison Blues."

In turning the song into "Folsom Prison Blues," Cash relied on Jenkins' opening line for each verse but transformed the story -- adding considerable power.

Here's one of the original "Crescent City Blues" verses:

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.

In a mid-'90s interview with a Canadian magazine, Cash said he heard the Jenkins tune during his Air Force days in Germany. "At the time, I really had no idea I would be a professional recording artist; I wasn't trying to rip anybody off," he said.

"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."

Though some websites have reported the pair agreed to share songwriting credit, Cash's name alone appears alone in the song credits of "Walk the Line."

Further listening

The "The King's Record Collection" albums, released in 1998, are no longer in the Hip-O catalog, so you'll have to look for them in used record stores or online. Also keep an eye out for "The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead," a 1995 CD from Shanachie devoted to original versions of songs recorded by the Dead. The package includes Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" and Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man." For a comprehensive Cash collection, try "The Legend," a four-disc package from Columbia/Legacy.

In brief

Tommy Cash, "Tommy Cash" (Varese Sarabande). Some record executives in 1969 felt that "Six White Horses," a poignant reflection on the deaths of the brothers Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was too morbid to win country radio airplay, but Johnny Cash's younger brother stood behind the Larry Murray song and it became Tommy Cash's first Top 10 country single. Though overshadowed by his legendary brother, the younger Cash made some creditable records. Besides "Horses," this retrospective includes duets from the '90s with Johnny Cash, George Jones and Tom T. Hall. The album will be released next Tuesday.

Buck Owens, "21 #1 Hits: The Ultimate Collection" (Rhino). If you know the late country singer only as co-host of the goofy "Hee Haw" TV show, this posthumous CD will explain why the Beatles, Ray Charles and Dwight Yoakam were among the biggest fans of the man who infused his country recordings with the energy of rock.

Ronnie Wood, "Ronnie Wood Anthology: The Essential Crossexion" (EMI). This two-disc package includes two songs the amiable guitarist (and sometimes bassist) recorded with the Rolling Stones but focuses on the Englishman's earlier musical life, including his solo albums and days with Rod Stewart. One often forgotten point: Wood didn't just play on Stewart's "Gasoline Alley" and "Every Picture Tells a Story" but co-wrote both tunes, included here.

Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues with special attention to artists or albums deserving of greater attention than they received originally. The albums are already available unless noted.

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