Except he wasn’t.
On October 13, 1951, Cash was just a few days into his tour at Landsberg AFB, Germany — a long way from his Arkansas home. He had signed up to be a radio operator, a move he thought would ready him for his real dream of being a radio star. But Germany was intimidating to the boy from Dyess, so he spent his first weeks on the base, watching movies like Warner Brother’s “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.”
Three years would pass until, in early 1954, a barracks mate of Cash’s put a record on that would spark Cash’s first real song and change music forever. The record, Gordon Jenkins’s “Crescent City Blues,” was written from a female speaker’s point of view and referenced the “lonesome whistle” of a train “rollin’ round the bend”, “rich folks eating in a fancy dining car”, and letting a whistle blow the speaker’s blues away.
In fact, more than 50 percent of Jenkins’s lyrics can be found—verbatim—in Cash’s seminal recording “Folsom Prison Blues.” Does that mean Cash wasn’t an original? Absolutely. Does it diminish the value and impact of his work? No way.
Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” stands alone as the most American piece of music ever recorded. Though parts of the lyric were blatantly stolen, they were repurposed in a way that has resonated with listeners for more than sixty years. The authenticity of the repurposed lyric—the context in which they are presented and the voice that delivers them—make the whole authentic, powerful and—yes, maybe—original.
Advertising at its best is art. And much is made of artists with “original” voices. But in thinking through my early gospel lessons, the ones that stuck weren’t always the originals, but the most authentic. Cash’s “Folsom Prison.” Willie’s duet with Merle Haggard of “Pancho and Lefty,” a song written by neither of them, but by Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt. But in an expert’s hands, an idea repurposed with authenticity can be better than something that is simply “original.”