Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts, that’s the way the story goes. Actually, the story often doesn’t go that way at all. Like so many of the best folk songs, the origins of Frankie and Johnnie are wrapped in mystery and ambiguity. Was the song a true story? Did Frankie actually kill Johnny? Were Frankie and Johnny even their names?
The song has taken on many forms, but the basic outline remains the same. Frankie and Johnny (or Frankie and Albert, or Frankie and Alan) were sweethearts. Johnny done Frankie wrong, with a girl named Nellie Bly (or Alice Bly, or Alice Fry, or Alice Pryor, or Mary Bley). So Frankie shot Johnny dead. Within that framework, anything can happen. Folk songs collect and cross-reference meaning over time, acquiring and shedding layers in a confused game of pass the parcel. Johnny Cash, though still in his dangerous, edgy prime, turned the song into a depressingly harmless morality tale, Johnny’s infidelity limited to a little flirting with Frankie’s sister, and his comeuppance amounting to no more than a slap in the face.
More often, Frankie is matter-of-fact and undistressed as she pops a cap in her man’s ass. She goes to the gallows unrepentant – after all, he was doing her wrong, what else is a girl supposed to do? Often, the judge agrees, and lets Frankie go free, with the suggestion that he and she might be meeting up after the trial.
This much we know. On Monday October 16th, 1899, in St. Louis Missouri, Frankie Baker shot and fatally wounded Allen (aka Albert) Britt after an argument over another woman, Nellie Bly. By the following night, local singer Bill Dooley had written a song about it, called “Frankie Killed Allen”. The number of versions spawned by that hastily written cash-in are estimated to number well over 300, from this Elvis Presley travesty to this hugely likeable rendition by Lindsey Lohan.
The definitive version is probably Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie”, a measured, almost amused rendition of the tale, accompanied by sprightly, complex guitar picking. Legend has it that classical guitar maestro Andrés Segovia heard this beautiful recording and was astounded to learn that the shower of splintering notes was the product of a single guitar.
Sam Cooke’s 1963 version is another thing altogether, though not without a share of the same fatalistic humour. Updated with references to nightclubs and sportscars, it had a Sinatra-esque swing, a mix of showtune and the Soul music Cooke was still only beginning to invent. Despite the jauntiness of his version, it remains a murder ballad, with all the bleak flatness of the genre. Psychology has no place in the folk song. People just do things, we don’t know or care why. We get no insight into Frankie’s thought process. She sees Johnnie’s arm around the waist of another woman, and that’s enough to send her into her handbag for her pistol. Without even demanding explanations, she puts three bullets into Johnny, right there on the dancefloor. Cooke was no stranger to seedy, occasionally violent nightclubs, nor to the fury of women betrayed by infidelity. As an artist it was his special genius take the simplest of material and imbue it with melody and romance. Thus, as Johnny falls to the floor, he delivers an aria of grovelling: “Frankie, you know that I love you… Frankie, I was telling her about you…” It is as beguiling as it is pathetic, the half-sincere pleading of a man so charming he believes his own bullshit. It almost seems too neat, too perfect that Cooke later died from a gun shot by a woman, but it remains true that the man’s beauty, charm, talent and irresponsibility, summed up in those dying moments of Frankie and Johnny, are also what got him into the kind of trouble which would eventually kill him.
If Cooke made Johnny a lovable rogue, while barely bothering with Frankie, Beth Orton turns the tables to haunting effect. A big hit with her first album about ten years ago, the English folk singer has delivered diminishing returns ever since, and dropped off the popular radar, but her “Frankie and Albert” is perhaps the finest version I’ve heard. Here, the key is not that Frankie shot Albert, but the fact, hammered home in refrain after refrain, that “He’s her man, and he was doing her wrong”. For Orton, the song is about Albert’s betrayal, nothing else. She doesn’t even try to argue that Frankie’s reaction was reasonable, it was simply what Frankie did, as if fated. He was doing her wrong, Orton repeats, as if that was all we needed to know. “Dark was night, cold was the ground”, sings Orton, echoing another great blues song, as Frankie goes to gallows. No explanation, no repentance. Frankie’s execution doesn’t even matter in Orton’s scheme of things. It’s not even the last verse. With the protagonists both dead, she revisits the scene of the real crime once more, repeating the verse where Frankie finds Albert with Alice Fry, as if it were a sin more profound than mere murder. By the time she’s finished, you’re almost inclined to agree with her.
How does this happen? How does the same story tug our sympathies this way and that, or not at all, depending on how it’s told? How does such a sparse framework support so much meaning? I’ve said that one will search a folk song in vain for evidence of the workings of reason.In Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, a film all about folk songs and the wisdom held therein, George Clooney says “It’s a fool as looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” So maybe it’s something to do with that.