Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Another Murder Ballad: Frankie and Johnny

Murder ballads can be somber (“Knoxville Girl”) or depressing (“Leona”). “Frankie and Johnny” has an early 1900s ebullient feel to it. It should, the real murder supposedly happened in 1899. Within weeks, the song was being sung in the cabarets and honky-tonks of St. Louis. There are hundreds of versions. If you don't like one, try another. [The photo shows the apartment building on 212 Targee Street in St. Louis, Missouri where the shooting took place.]

According to modern research, the song was based on the murder of a black pimp, Allen Britt, by his “kept woman,” Frankie Baker. It was originally called “Frankie and Albert” (a contraction of Al Britt). Legend has it that Al Britt’s parents asked the now-unknown song-writer to change the victim’s name so as not to embarrass the family. However, the writer may have changed it because “Johnny” has a more musical ring to it than “Albert.”

Here’s one story, the story Frankie Baker told when she filed a suit against Paramount Pictures, Mae West, and other Hollywood producers after they made the 1933 film “He Done Her Wrong.” Baker claimed in court that the studio was making money on her story without paying her. She said that she was Albert’s “housemaid” when he walked into her bedroom with another woman. Frankie said she told him to leave, but he drew a knife on her. So, in fear of her life, she pulled out her gun (actually a Harrington and Richardson .38, not a .44 as the song states) and shot him. “Oh, you have me,” Albert called out as he fell to the floor. Frankie exclaimed, “You just want to get up and cut me.” But Albert wouldn’t be getting up. He was dead. Frankie was acquitted of the murder on the grounds of self-defense.

Another story is that Frankie shot Albert for his infidelity. Still another has it that she was tired of working the streets and killed him for her freedom. Yet another story is that she was tired of Albert beating her. Whatever the truth, the song has become one of America’s most recognized folk-songs. It has been recorded by everyone from Sam Cooke to Guy Lombardo to Elvis to Johnny Cash and almost every other singer at one time or another.

Frankie Baker moved to Portland, Oregon to get away from her notoriety in St. Louis. It’s said that she lived on a small welfare check that she drew each month. Year after year she sat in her run-down shack overlooking a drab street while she played solitaire. Over the years, she wore out pack after pack of playing cards. As if the ghost of Albert was haunting her, neighborhood children would taunt her by standing outside her window and singing “Frankie and Johnny.” In 1938 she filed her lawsuit against the studios but it was quickly dismissed. It is said that she went insane and died in an institution.

Below I’ve posted the words to the version of “Frankie and Johnny” performed by an Arkansas folk-singer named B. J. Anderson. His guitar work in this song is outstanding and he has one of those old-time country voices to kill for. To listen to this version of the song, google "The John Quincy Wolf Collection Ozark Folksongs." (Sorry, I wasn't able to directly link the song to this page.)

Sung by: B. F. Anderson

Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts.
Lordy, how they could love.
They swore to be true to each other,
True as the stars above.
He was her man; He wouldn’t do her wrong.

Frankie went down the corner,
Just for a bucket of beer.
She said, “Mr. Bartender,
Has my lovin’ Johnny been here?
He is my man, But he’s doing me wrong.”

“I don’t want to cause you no trouble.
I don’t aim to tell you no lie.
I saw your lover ‘bout an hour ago
With a girl named Nelly Bly.
He is your man, But he’s doing you wrong.”

Frankie looked over the transom.
She saw to her surprise,
There on a cot sat Johnny,
Making love to Nelly Bly.
He was her man, But he’s doing her wrong.

Frankie drew back her kimono,
Pulled out a little ’44.
A rooty toot toot, three times she shot
Right through that barroom door.
Yes, she shot her man; He was doing her wrong.

“Call out a thousand policemen;
Bring ‘em around today.
Lock me down in the dungeon cell,
And throw that key away,
‘Cause I shot my man," ‘Cause he done her wrong.

Frankie said to the warden,
“What are they going to do?”
The warden, he said to Frankie,
“It’s the electric chair for you,
'Cause you shot your man," ‘Cause he done her wrong.

Roll out your rubber-tired buggy,
Roll out your rubber-tired hack.
I’m taking my man to the graveyard,
But I ain’t gonna bring him back.
She shot her man ‘Cause he done her wrong.

This story has no moral,
This story has no end,
This story just goes to show
That there ain't no good in men.
Yes, she shot her man, ‘Cause he done her wrong.

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