Frankie and Johnny were lovers. My how that couple could love!
March 29, 2015 1:40 PM   Subscribe

Paul Slade tackles the story behind the American blues/folk song Frankie and Johnny, tracing the lyrics back to an 1899 St. Louis murder, and exploring the history of the song, its subjects, and its variations.

Less than 24 hours after Frankie Baker pulled that trigger, a ballad telling her story was already being sold on the city's street corners. Allen wasn't even dead yet - he didn't finally succumb to his wounds until October 19 - but already the balladeers had him six feet under. The song's been in constant circulation ever since.
This ballad was based on an older folk tune's music and probably incorporated some standard lyrical elements like the "taking him to the graveyard" lyrics. There’s also a theory that the story of Frankie Silver is the basis of the song, but the historical record is stronger for Baker. The strongest part of the Frankie Silver argument is that her fate is generally the same as the musical Frankie's: sentenced to death.

In 1925, Dorothy Scarborough’s On the trail of negro folk-songs contains variations found among the black community. (Note: this is a white woman writing about black music in the 1920s.) In 1927, Carl Sandburg had captured 4 or 5 variations amongst many for his popular Songbag, a book that influenced many musicians in the folk revival movement of the 50s and 60s. Sandburg identifies the song The Lady in the Guinea Blue Gown as the precursor of the music of the song.

Lyrics from a variety of recorded versions of the song, beginning with the popular 1912 version. The Mudcat Cafe's mailing list has collected some raunchier and more profane versions of the lyrics.

You’re here for the music, right?

Frankie and Albert:
Mississippi John Hurt as Frankie (1928)
Leadbelly (1920s-30s)
Beth Orton (1991)
Bob Dylan (1992)

Frankie and Johnny:
Jimmie Rodgers (1927) (traditional lyrics)
Mae West (1933) (traditional lyrics)
Ethel Waters (1930s-40s) (adapted lyrics, extended lyrics about killing)
Lena Horne (1955) (adapted lyrics, sung from 1st person, spoken bits)
Sammy Davis, Jr (1957?) (adapted lyrics for style; additional lyrics by Sammy Cahn)
Pete Seeger (1957-62) (traditional lyrics)
Johnny Cash as Frankie’s Man, Johnny (1958) (adapted lyrics, no murder)
New Lost City Ramblers as Leaving Home (1958-62) (adapted lyrics)
Dottie Mae (1959) (traditional lyrics) (rockabilly)
Little Stevie Wonder (1962) (traditional lyrics, but she gets convicted of Murder in the 1st Degree)
Sam Cooke (1963) (adapted lyrics for style; ends with his death)
Louis Armstrong (1964) (adapted lyrics, no booze)
Elvis Presley (1964) (adapted lyrics, sung from 1st person/Johnny’s perspective)
Snakefarm (2009) (traditional lyrics)
Glenna Bell (2011) (traditional lyrics, but sung from 1st Person)
Anika Noni Rose as Sara Tidwell (2011) (traditional lyrics)

Ed McCurdy (1950s-60s)

Other Variations:
Bessie Smith: Frankie Blues (1924)
    (Fairly far afield: sung from the 1st Person - Frankie is the man in this version and is missing/gone, not dead)
A double-shot of He Done Me Wrong (The Death of Bill Bailey)
   a 1904 recording by Arthur Collins, followed by a 1924 version of the same song by Marion Harris (starting at 2:56).
   This is a cousin of Frankie and Johnny (same graveyard lyrics, focus on being done wrong). Music and lyrics copywritten in 1904 by Hughie Cannon.
Charles Mingus: Put Me in that Dungeon (music as a departure point, named after a lyric of Frankie and Johnny)
Al Cooper: Demo for Sadie, What a Gal (Frankie and Johnny’s daughter)

…and of course, the Ballad of Andy and Barney (or the Gangster’s Mistake) was to the tune of Frankie and Johnny
posted by julen (17 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Great post. I don't see any mention of the Boy Scout Troop 5 Campfire Songbook, which is where I learned the song.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:17 PM on March 29, 2015

MeFi's Own Paul Slade! And no relation to Richard Slade from the murder ballad "The Kindness of Strangers."
posted by infinitewindow at 3:04 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Frankie and Johnny link has been posted before, but I hadn't seen the rest. Cool!
posted by limeonaire at 3:09 PM on March 29, 2015

The Sammy Davis, Jr. version accompanied by the production number, featuring Cyd Charisse, John Brascia, and Liliane Montevecchi.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:18 PM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

A tangent, but just yesterday, I was thinking about how some versions of the song mention Frankie going to a bar for "a bucket of beer", which was a term that I was unfamiliar with. I asked my friends, who thought maybe it meant bucket of ice with some bottles in it, but it turns out that before there were growlers, people would buy beer in a small galvanized bucket.
posted by surlyben at 3:24 PM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I went looking for the Immortalia book mentioned in the article. As it was published in 1927, and I can find no copyright renewal, it should be in the public domain. I found it on, which looks like it could be a FPP on it's own.
posted by fings at 3:29 PM on March 29, 2015

Sometimes folks in the early part of the 20th century would send their kids out to the local bar to pick the buckets of beer up for them!
posted by julen at 3:37 PM on March 29, 2015

I remember catching the Elvis movie Frankie and Johnny on tv when I was a kid. They took some liberties with the story, which seemed sinful to me, but it was still a hoot seeing Ellie Mae Clampett as his co-star. YouTube has an 8 minute chunk of the movie, including a staging of the full song, here.
posted by maudlin at 4:33 PM on March 29, 2015

I confess to a big soft spot for the Al Pacino/Michelle Pfeiffer film from 1991, based on the Terrence McNally play Frankie and Johnny In the "Clair de Lune". Just hits me the right way.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 4:44 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Kathy Bates was the original Frankie in the McNally play.I think that her not getting the movie role inspired Mary Jane/Jahne's character in Olivia Goldsmith's Flavor of the Month.
posted by brujita at 5:47 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Parallel to the bucket of beer tangent, growlers were buckets before they were bottles. Etymologies disagree, but I like the one that says that the growling referred to in the name was the sound the bubbling draught beer made as it foamed past either a plate or cloth placed over the bucket to protect it from flies.
posted by Zedcaster at 6:22 PM on March 29, 2015

Good stuff, even without Johnny Cash's long legged guitar picker version. The slide to Gary Davis and Bill Broonzy was inevitable, given my weakness.

Did you know, I was only 63 clicks away from Kaukonen's "Hesitation Blues?" I think it was the Muddy Waters link that did that. I probably could have gotten there quicker but I got hung up on some John Hurt, and then I had to watch Jimmy Page (in 1957) do the mamma don't allow song on British TV. Amazing. He said he wanted to be a micro-biologist when he grew up. I can't imagine how that idea went south.

Okay, back to the link bait.
posted by mule98J at 6:57 PM on March 29, 2015

Greetings, all. MeFi's own Paul Slade here, delighted and grateful to see this essay given another spin on the Blue. Your timing couldn't be better, Julen, because I have some news.

Earlier this year, I signed a deal to produce a book based on PlanetSlade's murder ballads essays, which will be out later this year from Soundcheck Books. I'm here in the USA on my final research trip for the project right now, currently in New York and heading down to North Carolina tomorrow. PlanetSlade's Twitter account has regular updates of my progress, including quite a few pics.

The book's going to have six chapters about songs I've already discussed on PlanetSlade, each one expanded with fresh information and brand-new interviews, plus two exclusive chapters for the book alone. My Frankie & Johnny interviewee is Anna Domino of the excellent Snakefarm. So far, I've also spoken to The Handsome Family's Rennie Sparks, Billy Bragg, Ralph Stanley, Jon Langford of The Mekons, Angela Correa, Laura Cantrell and The Kingston Trio's Bob Shane.

I've got a couple of other big names in the offing, but I don't want to mention their details till the interviews are safely in the can. There's talk of a download-only compilation album to go with the book too, but whether that will finally materialise or not is anybody's guess.

It's the two exclusive chapters I'm researching right now, which will cover Poor Ellen Smith and Death of the Lawson Family. I met Laura for a fascinating chat about Poor Ellen Smith here in NYC a couple of days ago, and I have more interviews lined up in North Carolina. I'm looking forward to visiting all the key sites associated with Poor Ellen Smith, Death of the Lawson Family and Tom Dooley too, as the killings which inspired those three songs all happened with a few miles of where I'm staying. Not everyone's idea of a pleasant Spring excursion, I know, but it'll make a few very interesting days for me.
posted by Paul Slade at 7:50 PM on March 29, 2015 [16 favorites]

Oh, that's so exciting! I look forward to reading (and hopefully listening to) it. I'm particularly excited about the Death of the Lawson Family chapter, since I came late to that song.

mule98J: "Good stuff, even without Johnny Cash's long legged guitar picker version. The slide to Gary Davis and Bill Broonzy was inevitable, given my weakness."

Here's a great country blues version of Big Bill Broonzy's Frankie and Johnny that I almost put in the original post.
Tangentially relevant: in this version of the song, she goes down for a stein of beer, instead of a bucket of beer, a glass of beer, or information instead of beer. Or ice cream (!) as in some of those mid-century recordings.
posted by julen at 12:05 AM on March 30, 2015

The model for this sort of work for me -- the historical archaeology of a vernacular artwork with a critical political angle -- remains Americo Paredes' *With His Pistol In His Hand* (1970). It's not every academic book that gets you death threats from the Texas Rangers.

Great post.
posted by spitbull at 7:51 AM on March 30, 2015

Great post. Thanks, julen.
posted by homunculus at 1:48 PM on March 31, 2015

Oh wow. I always wanted the back story on this song. Thanks julen, mighty post. Thanks Paul Slade, fascinating article.
posted by valetta at 7:21 AM on April 5, 2015

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