|Postcard showing Peachtree Street, Atlanta, ca. 1910 (postcard, public domain)|
Note: this is Part 1 of a two part series. Read Part 2 here.
Introduction – “Betty told Dupree…”
What would you do for love? Well, wait, that’s not quite it today. It’s more like this. How far would you go to prove your love for someone you just met? Poor Dupree’s answer involved a pistol, a jewelry store, a diamond ring for Betty, a murder, and a hemp rope in a hang knot.
Betty gave a different answer to our lover’s question, at least in Brownie McGhee’s version of the tale, in the note she delivers to the Atlanta jailhouse where Dupree is doing time.
“I was there to see you but I could not see your face.
Well although you know I love you, I just can’t take your place.”
Bail would have served Dupree better, of course. But his sad story at least gives the rest of us a classic blues, if not the truth.
“He got himself a pistol…”
Indeed, eighteen-year-old Frank DuPre’s story is a true one from early 20th century Atlanta. McGhee’s version and all of the other musical ones we know fictionalize more or less of it, but always leave tantalizing bits of the truth intact. We’ll get to a bit of that below, and more so next week. But one thing’s sure enough from the history – whether in the newspapers, the courtroom, or the balladeer’s throat, the ‘true’ and pitiful tale of Frank DuPre’s journey to the gallows was painted falsely as the fault of a fallen woman.
Tom Hughes wrote the definitive book about the whole affair, published in 2014; Hanging the Peachtree Bandit: The True Tale of Atlanta’s Infamous Frank DuPre. It’s a great, fast read, and well worth the small investment! You can listen to an interview with the author about the book here. His work is well-written and footnoted, so I won’t recreate his thorough and engaging discussion of the history of the case here. Let’s just get the basic facts as he outlines them.
On December 15, 1921, Frank DuPre got drunk and robbed Nat Kaiser’s Jewelry in Atlanta to get an impressive diamond ring, which Hughes estimates would be worth $30,000 today. He wanted it for his new girlfriend Betty Andrews. DuPre shot and killed a security guard in the store who was blocking his exit, and then wounded another man badly in the head during his successful escape down Peachtree Street. After hocking the ring in Chattanooga and running alone from the law across several states for weeks, he managed rather stupidly to get himself caught. He was tried and found guilty, failed to get an appeal or clemency, and was hanged in Atlanta on September 1, 1922.
Both Frank and Betty were white. Though whites were hung occasionally in Georgia, it was not common. We’ll come back to this next week as well, as it’s curious then that the ballad is clearly an African-American creation in the ‘bad man’ tradition.
More critical though is the issue of blame. Hughes notes how one of DuPre’s defense attorneys described his client in the closing argument of his murder trial – as being led astray by a woman, like Adam, David, and Samson in the Bible. The counselor went on to quote Proverbs 5:17, “The lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.”
Such statements represented more than lawyer-like legerdemain to loosen the hangman’s noose. Hughes’s research shows that both the makers and the consumers of this popular 1922 media spectacle of true crime quite often blamed Betty first among others for Frank’s predicament. She was a bad woman who caused a good man to fall, or so the story goes.
Now, seventeen-year-old Betty Andrews was certainly no model of virtue or intellect. Then again, neither was Frank. Indeed, Hughes tells us that both she and Frank were clinically deemed “morons” by psychological experts of the day. And yet his research uncovers no evidence that Betty was to blame in any meaningful way for Frank’s fateful decision to down a half-pint of moonshine and rob a jewelry store with a loaded .32 Colt in his pocket.
Yes, “Betty told DuPre” that she would expect nice things if he wanted to court her, even a diamond ring. But by the time of the robbery she had known Frank all of six days and, though he seemed to have plenty of money to spend on her, to the best of our knowledge she was unaware of his new occupation as a petty jewelry thief.
Receiving generous gifts from your new, cute, seemingly loaded boyfriend, then telling him that you want more nice things, even a diamond ring, may be shallow – but it is far from being an accessory to armed robbery and murder. At worst she was an accessory after the fact. Frank told her what he’d done after he escaped on the day of the robbery, and she didn’t go to the police. But she didn’t run away with him, and when the police confronted her, she cooperated in helping them apprehend Frank. Hughes tells us that in the end all charges against her in connection to the robbery were dropped, and that she was dealt with by the court essentially as a child needing supervision, a girl in a woman’s body, too naive and corruptible for life in Atlanta.
Why then did people blame her, and keep blaming her, for Frank’s violent and impetuous act? I’ll try to explain the ‘why’, imperfectly I’m sure, in Part 2 – but today and on any day I can most certainly speak to the ‘how’. The most effective mechanism of blame through the generations in the case of Betty and Dupree is clear enough – the bad man murder ballad.
“Betty and Dupree” – A Digital Compendium Part 1 – “Dupree’s Diamond Blues”
You can see from my Spotify playlist that we’ve got a bit of ground to cover. I’m going to start with the best known version of this tale today, and next week we’ll go back through the deeper historical discography and as well consider the philosophical angles that this ballad illuminates. Though misogyny is common in both the Anglo and African-American murder / bad man ballad traditions, this particular brand is a variant we’ve only bumped against a few times so far in this blog, and never quite like this.
Today’s version of interest is a perfect backdrop for beginning that consideration. See, what this song tells us is that “jelly roll will drive you stone mad.” Jelly roll is old working class African-American slang for female genitalia – metaphorically then, the promise of sex.
The lyrics tell it all quite clearly in the closing stanza.
“Same old story and I know it’s been told,
some like jelly-jelly, some like gold.
Many a man’s done a terrible thing
just to get his baby a shiny diamond ring.”
The Grateful Dead was my first compass in exploring the broad landscape of American folk music, and I often still center myself with the band as I go in search of new points on that map. In our first year I wrote extensively about their only original murder ballad “Jack Straw” (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) and then spent a week considering other related songs and elements from of our genre of choice in the Dead’s oeuvre. (Here’s the First Set, the Second Set, and the Encore from that week.)
I spent a short time in that ‘First Set’ post considering “Dupree’s Diamond Blues,” which folks often assume is a Grateful Dead original. It is original in a limited sense. Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia played the role of ‘confabulators‘ in rewriting “Betty and Dupree”. It is a tune from their 1969 album Aoxomoxoa. In those heady days of counter-culture iconoclasm, they clearly enjoyed “expanding and embellishing” the traditional Betty and Dupree story to make it relevant to the hippie hordes who were their core audience.
“Hunter and I always had this thing where we liked to muddy the folk tradition by adding our own songs… It’s the thing of taking a well-founded tradition and putting in something that’s totally looped.” (Jerry Garcia, quoted in Blair Jackson’s Garcia: An American Life)
Indeed, they ‘expand and embellish’ the traditional ballad from the first line, introducing (presumably) Dupree’s father – who was actually part of the historical proceedings, often seen weeping for his son Frank and taking the blame for the boy’s errant ways. The message he delivers to young Dupree in the song doesn’t jibe with his real-life father’s obvious love for his son, and his sorrow and sense of responsibility for Frank’s crimes. Yet, it’s a clever and powerful opening stanza, particularly for a generation that felt that their parents had left them a dull, dangerous, and meaningless world to inherit.
Now, perhaps it’s not Dupree’s father, but the narrator’s – maybe Hunter’s! The rest of the story is in the third person, so perhaps the narrative is meant to validate this other parent’s perspective. Either way, it’s not a typical blues sort of opening, for sure. Further, the unique rhythm tells the listener that this, at least musically, is not a traditional blues.
Structurally, the song is sophisticated. Such complexity in detail is not our main focus in this blog, but I mention it generally before we go back to the lyrics because the upbeat syncopation and ear-catching chord changes lend a jovial bounce to the song that doesn’t fit the narrative. That’s not unheard of either in blues or in the Anglo murder ballad tradition of course, but the dynamic of ‘upbeat music for a sad story’ here is pushed to an extreme. It’s a cross between jazz, blues, and hurdy-gurdy music, all to accompany a robbery, a murder, and an execution. As Garcia hoped, it’s “totally looped”.
What do I mean? Ok, maybe you didn’t like the Dead’s studio take on the song. But listen to what a different sort of band can do with this music. I think if Jerry Garcia could have heard The Waybacks perform this song, he would have been most impressed. Bob Weir certainly saw something attractive in their talent, as he toured and played with them. Here’s a clip from a live performance which absolutely soars. The instrumental interplay between all of the band members is exceptional, and that between Warren Hood and James Nash is sublime. The two trade off the lyrics masterfully as well.
Here's a full 9 minute version of The Waybacks performing "Dupree's" live, if you've got the time. Though I can't find a version on Spotify, you can download another live performance here, the proceeds from which benefit the Rex Foundation.
See what I mean?
I know, right? This judge is sending Dupree to the gallows, and on the sly telling him that he knows the same woman, sexually! And Dupree lets him off the hook! I always imagined that a wink was exchanged in this lyrical moment. Needless to say, there’s nothing historical about that. Lyrically it’s totally ludicrous, and yet the music makes it work as absurd art.
So musically and lyrically, this just isn’t a traditional blues. It is in the end, though, a fundamentally faithful retelling of the “Betty and Dupree” story as put forth in the older bad man ballads. And, as with those older ballads we’ll see next week, some of the historical truths and certainly the key historical falsehood are alive and well.
For example, the Dupree of the Dead’s song accepts his fate calmly and sees that it’s “just about right” that he should pay with his life for the one of the man he murdered. The historical Frank DuPre, Hughes tells us, expressed attitudes that one could argue are similar. He didn’t want to die, but he accepted his situation calmly from the moment he was caught and he ascended the gallows in the same manner, having been converted in prison.
And Betty? Hughes discovered that she tried to maintain some contact with Frank while he was in prison and, as best we can know, she had real affection for him. At any rate, she did not forsake him immediately in search of some other man to “treat her with style.” She did find another man, but it didn’t end like the Dead’s song. She married eventually and lived out her life in a more conservative style as a member of the generation from which Garcia and his compatriots broke away. Betty died in 1972, thus surviving long enough to have known every ballad written about her and her lover Frank’s exploits, even the “totally looped” Grateful Dead version. Hughes reports though from talking to Betty’s adopted son that she didn’t much like music and never mentioned Frank as long as her son knew her.
Coda – “Same old story and I know it’s been told…”
And what about that lie, that Betty caused Dupree to go wrong? Though she isn’t identified by name, the Dead’s version certainly paints it that way. Interestingly, by leaving her nameless, Hunter’s lyric pushes even further into the cliche – a good man will do anything for a bad woman.
I’ll come back to this point after we look at the older versions of the ballad next week, but I don’t think you’ll be surprised. Nearly every version I’ve found, to one degree or another, blames Betty. Now, as the Dead proved, that kind of blame can make for a great song. They certainly weren’t the first.
But where does that perspective take us, and leave us?
If you enjoyed today’s post, come on back next week and I’ll try my best to answer that question. All I can promise for sure though is more great music. Thanks for reading today folks!