|The Frankie and Johnny mural in the House Lounge at the Missouri State Capitol|
“Frankie and Johnny” or “Frankie and Albert” is the most popular and commercially successful murder ballad. I can’t think of a song that really comes remotely close. “Frankie,” “Frankie and Albert,” “Frankie and Johnny,” and a number other related titles number in the hundreds of recorded versions. I’ll have to confess at the outset that our trip with “Frankie” will be incomplete, but there is plenty of material to revisit. The amount of variety is simply staggering.
Here is an instrumental version to listen to, while you read along:
So, it’s dauntingly huge to take on—so familiar, so popular, so many versions. We’ve gone from murder ballads that might be somewhat obscure to a murder ballad so popular that it’s not always thought of as part of the genre.
Why take it up now? Well, primarily, to broaden our scope a bit–away from the Child Ballads or their direct descendants. Over the course of the year, Murder Ballad Monday will push the boundaries here and there to explore whether and how the key themes of the genre manifest in songs that might not obviously fit in it. “Frankie” is not boundary pushing in this way. It’s solidly within the genre, but is decidedly more aligned with an African-American cultural context than any of the ones we have discussed so far. And, as I mention above, it winds up overtaking all the rest in the depth and breadth of its cultural penetration.
Like “Omie Wise,” “Frankie” is American born (we think), and based on a true story (at least one…we think). Most sources point back to St. Louis, Missouri in 1899. The song has been the subject of at least one doctoral dissertation and provided the core theme for several feature films.
As we know the song now, “Frankie…” took shape at the beginning of the era of recorded music. Exactly when is a matter of some debate, which we’ll take up tomorrow; but, it’s pretty clear that the versions that made it to today were composed somewhere between 1899 and 1912.
That being said, the only elements really essential to this song are that Albert/Johnny was somehow unfaithful to Frankie, and for this or some related reason, he was shot. The true story, to the extent that there is one, is a bit more complicated, as we’ll see tomorrow. Aside from discrepancies about the name, Johnny or Albert, there are discrepancies about the name of his other lover, where Frankie went to look for him, and where she found him.
A collection of various lyrics for the song can be found here. It is a long list, but still incomplete.
To use the scheme from from Eleanor Long-Wilgus that Pat introduced us to, there’s a whole lot of confabulating going on—people tweaking the ballad to make it more entertaining. The other three types (perseverator, rationalizer, and integrator) appear, but in smaller number.
In his essay “We Did Them Wrong: The Ballad of Frankie and Albert,”  anthropologist and novelist Cecil Brown argues that “Frankie and Albert” has one originating author, many interpreters (confabulators, et al), and can be traced to one historical incident. There is, however, disagreement about this.
Brown makes use of Bruce Redfern Buckley’s simpler schema of “Folk” and “Popular.” According to Brown, Buckley’s 1962 dissertation “remains the most comprehensive study of the ballad” (as of 2005).
For simplicity’s sake, the “Folk” type can be associated with the title “Frankie and Albert,” and dates from 1899. The date is significant because it follows the shooting and killing of Allen Britt by Frankie Baker in St. Louis, Missouri. “Al Britt” becomes “Albert.” Brown argues that songwriter Bill Dooley is responsible for the song as we have it from that time. But, again, we’ll get to discussing this tomorrow. Mississippi John Hurt and Taj Mahal provide examples of the “folk” type.
“Frankie,” by Mississippi John Hurt (Spotify) — this version, or one very close to it is the version that Harry Smith included in his Anthology of American Folk Music.
This YouTube recording of the same adjusts the playback speed a bit to to put the performance in a more likely key:
The “Popular” type, for simplicity “Frankie and Johnny,” Buckley dates to 1912. (Lyrics here) These versions fall more into the rationalizer mode; reconfiguring the song to fit a moral framework. Put simply, Frankie Baker was a prostitute, and Allen Britt (“Albert”) was most likely her pimp. Their story was an underworld story. Many of the singers of the “Popular” type clean things up a bit: Frankie goes to the “drugstore” instead of the “whorehouse” or “barroom,” she has a gun because her father is a policeman, of course. Guy Lombardo’s Big Band Era version is illustrative. It is almost painfully sanitized.
The 1912 version is also a bit closer to the “Leaving Home” variety, played by the New Lost City Ramblers and others (including the Kingston Trio). You might want to pay attention to how this version changes the context of Frankie and Johnny’s confrontation.
“Frankie and Johnny” took less than half a century to become a classic. It’s a paradigmatic case of African-American source material being drawn up into the majority culture. Despite its likely origins in a particular place in time, it seems to capture something sufficiently universal, and manages to be sufficiently catchy, that its popularity endures to the present day. It is taught to schoolchildren (see Keillor below) and makes its way back to Europe, as we hear in the Lonnie Donegan/Van Morrison clip below), informing the Skiffle music that was a precursor to rock and roll in the British Isles.
There are certainly more versions of this song than you can shake a stick at, and a wide variety of titles. I hope this has set the stage just a bit. Next, as with “Omie Wise,” we’ll discuss whether and how the facts matter, and how this question helps us understand whether Cecil Brown is right about a definitive start for this ballad. After that, we’ll take a look at the song as a morality play, much like we did with “Fair Ellender.” Later, a hipster will (more or less) ask us to knock him our lobes, and we’ll move through the uproarious 60s and go with “Frankie” to the movies and across the pond. Finally, we’ll wrap up the week with some integrators, who perhaps put a different spin on the central story.
 In The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad (2005), Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus, eds.