THE ROOT- Little Brother Montgomery, jazz and blues pianist from Kentwood, should likely be credited for creating the initial foundation for the song that became Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”
By Jesse Brooks
One of the most well-known songs to ever be labeled as rock-n-roll out outlaw country is “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. So what does this have to do with Kentwood, Louisiana?
By Cash’s own admissions throughout his life, he often borrowed from older songs he had heard to create brand new ones. While he served in the Air Force, Cash wrote Folsom Prison blues as an adaptation of a song he heard called “Crescent City Blues” by Gordon Jenkins featuring vocals from Beverly Mahr. Cash released his song in 1955 at Sun Studio in Memphis, letting producer Sam Philips know that he re-wrote a song that was re-released prior.
“At the time, I really had no idea I would be a professional recording artist; I wasn’t trying to rip anybody off,” Cash told a Canadian magazine in the 1990s.
Jenkins’ song was slow and bluesy in comparison to Cash’s early rock-n-roll, but the similarities are apparent. However, the twist here is that Jenkins did some “borrowing” on his own and took the chord progression and title of his big band hit from an early and highly influential jazz and blues pianist from Kentwood, Little Brother Montgomery.
Ironically, Jenkins ended up suing Cash for plagiarism 15 years after the release of Folsom Prison Blues. Cash would settle with Jenkins out of court for a total of $75,000.
Montgomery’s instrumental was the foundation that everyone took from. He released Crescent City Blues in the 1930s as a tribute to the city he had gotten to know musically across the lake.
Montgomery was a prodigy and superfan of Jelly Roll Morton, obsessing with his records at a young age. He was born in Kentwood as Eurreal Wilford Montgomery in 1906 and his family was both musical and familiar with the lumber circuit, the main source of work in the Florida Parishes and South Mississippi. He started playing the piano at age 4 and was a regular performer in lumber circuit juke joints in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi by the time he was 11.
Before moving to Chicago at the age of 22, Montgomery lived and worked in Kentwood and Brookhaven, Mississippi. Although there are no markers or memorials for Montgomery in Kentwood, the Mississippi Blues Trail planted on in Brookhaven, commemorating his time there as a resident and for his role in American music.
The Mississippi Blues Trail Marker for Little Brother Montgomery in Brookhaven, Mississippi. Photo by Jesse Brooks.
After living in Chicago for three years to record, Montgomery returned to the Gulf Coast where he continued to tour. From 1931-1938, he fronted a band in Jackson, Mississippi where he held a residency.
He returned to Chicago in 1942, where he began to expand his career on national and international levels. By the 1960s, he toured to large crowds in Europe who saw him as one of the original links to the spread of New Orleans music throughout America and eventually the world.
Montgomery died in Champaign, Illinois in 1985. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013.
Montgomery’s nephew, Paul Gayten, was also born in Kentwood. Gayten spent most of his early career in New Orleans before becoming a record producer in Los Angeles. He is recognized for his development of New Orleans R&B and early rock-n-roll.