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"Frankie and Johnny" (sometimes spelled "Frankie and Johnnie"; also known as "Frankie and Albert" or just "Frankie") is a traditional American popular song. It tells the story of a woman, Frankie, who finds that her man Johnny was "making love to" another woman and shoots him dead. Frankie is then arrested; in some versions of the song she is also executed.

History

The first published version of the music to "Frankie and Johnny" appeared in 1904, credited to and copyrighted by Hughie Cannon, the composer of "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey"; the piece, a variant version of whose melody is sung today, was titled "He Done Me Wrong" and subtitled "Death of Bill Bailey".

Another variant of the melody, with words and music credited to Frank and Bert Leighton, appeared in 1908 under the title "Bill You Done Me Wrong"; this song was republished in 1912 as "Frankie and Johnny", this time with the words that appear in modern folk variations:
Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts
They had a quarrel one day,
Johnny he vowed that he would leave her
Said he was going away,
He's never coming home, etc.
Also:
Frankie took aim with her forty-four,
Five times with a rooty-toot-toot.
The 1912 "Frankie and Johnny" by the Leighton Brothers and Shields also identifies "Nellie Bly" as the new girl to whom Johnny has given his heart.

What has come to be the traditional version of the melody was also published in 1912, as the chorus to the song "You're My Baby", whose music is attributed to Nat. D. Ayer.

The familiar "Frankie and Johnny were lovers" lyrics first appeared (as "Frankie and Albert") in On the Trail of Negro Folksongs by Dorothy Scarborough, published in 1925; a similar version with the "Frankie and Johnny" names appeared in 1927 in Carl Sandburg's The American Songbag.

Several students of folk music have asserted that the song long predates the earliest published versions; according to Leonard Feather in his Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz it was sung at the Siege of Vicksburgmarker (1863) during the American Civil War and Sandburg said it was widespread before 1888, while John Jacob Niles reported that it emerged before 1830. The fact, however, that the familiar version does not appear in print before 1925 is "strange indeed for such an allegedly old and well-known song", according to music historian James J. Fuld, who suggests that it "is not so ancient as some of the folk-song writers would have one believe."

It has been suggested that the song was inspired, or its details influenced, by one or more actual murders. One of these took place in St. Louis, Missourimarker, on October 15, 1899, when Frankie Baker, a 22-year-old dancer, stabbed (or shot) her 17-year-old lover Allen "Al" Britt, who was having a relationship with a woman named Alice Pryor. Britt died of his wounds two days later. On trial, Baker claimed that Britt had attacked her with a knife and that she acted in self-defense; she was acquitted and died in a Portlandmarker mental institution in 1952.

The song has also been linked to Frances Silver, convicted in 1832 of murdering her husband Charles Silver in Burke County, North Carolinamarker. Unlike Frankie Baker, Silver was executed.

Lyrics

Since "Frankie and Johnny" is a traditional song there is no single definitive version of the lyrics. Several versions were collected by Robert Winslow Gordon. The refrain common to most versions is: "He was her man, but he was doing her wrong." The name of the song's "other woman" varies, Alice or Nellie Bly being the most usual ones. The gunshot that kills Johnny is often depicted by the onomatopoeia "rooty toot toot." Many versions open with the quatrain: "Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts/Lordy, how they could love/They vowed to love one another/Underneath the stars above." Another common opening is:"Frankie was a good girl/everybody knows/she paid a hundred dollars/for Al's one suit of clothes." A common conclusion is: "This story has no moral/This story has no end/This story only goes to show/That there ain't no good in men."

Recordings

At least 256 different recordings of "Frankie and Johnny" have been made since the early 20th century. Singers including Lead Belly, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Lena Horne, Lonnie Donegan, Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt, Joe and Eddie, Taj Mahal, Charlie Patton, Charlie Poole, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Vincent, Fats Waller, Van Morrison, Michael Pappas, Brook Benton, Stevie Wonder, Jack Johnson, Michelle Shocked, Lindsay Lohan, and Jerry Lawson Talk of the Town have performed it in a variety of musical idioms. As a jazz standard it has also been recorded by numerous jazz bands and instrumentalists including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Bunny Berigan, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Champion Jack Dupree set his version in New Orleansmarker on "Rampart and Dumainemarker". Jerome Moross' ballet score "The Scandalous Life of Frankie and Johnny" has also been recorded.

Films

The basic story of Frankie and Johnny has been the inspiration for several feature films, including Her Man (1930, starring Helen Twelvetrees), Frankie and Johnnie (1936, starring Helen Morgan), and Frankie and Johnny (1966, starring Elvis Presley). Terrence McNally wrote a 1987 play, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which was adapted for the screen in a 1991 film starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Mae West sings the song in her 1933 Paramount film, She Done Him Wrong, which takes its title from the refrain, substituting genders.

The climax of Robert Altman's 2006 film A Prairie Home Companion is Lindsay Lohan's rendition of the song with quasi-improvisatory lyrics by Garrison Keillor.

The tune is often used Merrie Melodies cartoons by Warner Bros. as the theme or motif for a meretricious or zaftig woman. The song was the basis of a 1951 UPA animated cartoon, Rooty Toot Toot, directed by John Hubley. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Subject.

Other media

Daniel Clowes drew a comics adaptation of a somewhat explicit version of the song's lyrics. It is included in the collection Twentieth Century Eightball.

E. E. Cummings used a version of "Frankie and Johnny" (spelling the latter name "Johnie") as the centerpiece for his 1927 play Him.

The radio series Suspense did a dramatization of the lyrics on May 5, 1952 with singer Dinah Shore as Frankie. The script was subsequently produced on February 3, 1957 with singer Margaret Whiting.

The radio program A Prairie Home Companion, broadcast from Saint Louismarker in July 2008, included a version of the song.

See also



Notes

  1. Fuld, p. 234.
  2. Fuld, p. 235.
  3. Leonard Feather and & Gitler, editors (2007). The Biographical encyclopedia of jazz. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195320008, ISBN 019532000X.
  4. MELODY LANE SONGS - (PAGE 1) - 1840 - 1960
  5. , Traditional Ballad Index.
  6. Fuld, pp. 233, 235.
  7. St. Louis Post Dispatch, October 19, 1899, cited in Traditional Ballad Index; Bluegrass Messengers.
  8. "Perfesser" Bill Edwards. This account is the one narrated by Garrison Keillor in A Prairie Home Companion when that radio program aired from St. Louis for the weekend of 2008 July 19-20.
  9. Traditional Ballad Index; The Untold Story of Frances Silver: A Different Perspective.


References

  • James J. Fuld, The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular and Folk, 3rd Edition (New York: Dover, 1985).


External links




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