Marijohn Wilkin

Nashville songwriter

Marijohn Melson (Marijohn Wilkin), music publisher and songwriter: born Kemp, Texas 14 July 1920; four times married (one son); died Nashville, Tennessee 28 October 2006.

On his startling 1968 album from Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash sang a narrative song about an innocent man who was executed for murder because he did not want to admit he was "in the arms of another man's wife". After singing that line, Cash chuckles and says, "Did I hear somebody applaud?" His playfulness in no way invalidates the intensity of Marijohn Wilkin's song, which ranks among the greatest songs of the 20th century.

The songwriter was born Marijohn Melson in Kemp, Texas, in 1920, but raised in Dallas. Her father played the fiddle and ran a bakery. During the Depression and motivated by a strong faith, he would distribute free bread to the hobos. After his death in 1936, his daughter became a teacher, singing in her spare time. Her husband, Bedford Russell, was killed during the Second World War. She remarried and a son, John ("Bucky"), was born in 1946. The marriage did not last and she married Art Wilkin Jnr in 1950.

In 1955, she became part of Red Foley's touring show and had her first songs recorded the following year - Mitchell Torok's "Take This Heart" and Wanda Jackson's "No Wedding Bells for Joe". She settled in Nashville in 1958. With John D. Loudermilk, she wrote Stonewall Jackson's million-selling novelty "Waterloo" and Jimmy C. Newman's US country hit "Grin and Bear It" (both 1958).

With Danny Dill, she wrote "The Long Black Veil", a US country hit for Lefty Frizzell in 1959 - and later covered by the Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, the Band and Mick Jagger with the Chieftains. At his final recording session in 1960, Eddie Cochran recorded Wilkin's humorous "Cut Across Shorty" - recorded twice since by Rod Stewart. In 1961, Wilkin wrote "I Just Don't Understand" for a sultry Ann-Margret. She wrote two of Webb Pierce's country hits ("Fallen Angel", "Take Time") as well as the heroic "PT 109", a US hit in 1962 for Jimmy Dean.

In 1964, Wilkin formed her own company, Buckhorn Music, and her son provided the first hit, "G.T.O.", for Ronny (i.e. Bucky) and the Daytonas. She was the first to recognise Kris Kristofferson's potential and signed him as a writer. With her fourth husband, the record producer Clarence Selman, she formed the Nashville Songwriters Association in 1967.

After several years of unhappiness, heavy drinking and suicide attempts, Wilkin sought salvation through gospel music. She wrote "One Day at a Time", originally recorded by Marilyn Sellars and a UK No 1 for Lena Martell in 1979. On this she shares the writing credit with Kris Kristofferson, but he told me,

I was in the room while Marijohn was writing it and I might have helped with a line or two, but I think of it as her song and I'm a little embarrassed that she put my name on it. She was paying me back for the songs I'd written for her like "For the Good Times" and "Darby's Castle". She was the first publisher I worked for and she introduced me to everybody in the business.

Spencer Leigh

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