Drinkin’. Cheatin’. Revenge. Murder. Capital punishment. All tied together with a catchy little melody. That’s what I love about Frankie and Johnny, an American ballad that has withstood the test of time. Basically, Frankie finds out that Johnny, her sweetheart, has been doing her wrong, catches him in the act and kills him with a .44 caliber pistol that went “rooty-toot-toot.” End of story. Or is it?
This story has no moral; this story has no end…
The beginnings of the song have been questioned, as well. Ballads relating a story similar to Frankie and Johnny reportedly date back to the 1830s. However, according to Alan Lomax in his book Folk Songs of North America, there is no one incident that can be attributed as the song’s inspiration. Lomax, considered by many to be the ultimate authority on American folk music, wrote that a ballad about a woman named Frankie who murdered her husband with an ax does exist. But it’s not the one we know as Frankie and Johnny.
He also wrote that as the song gained popularity in the twentieth century, several women emerged claiming to be the original Frankie emerged. Voluntarily claiming to be a murderess may or may not be a smart way to get publicity, but none of them could have been the subject of the original ballad.
Albert or Johnny
Prior to the early 1900s, the ballad was known as Frankie and Albert. Lomax referred to it simply as Frankie, and in a footnote states that either Albert or Johnny can be used as the name of the deceased boyfriend. There have been many recorded versions of the song and among the most popular of the early records was the one by Jimmie Rodgers, The Father of Country Music. He recorded it in 1929 as Frankie and Johnny. Another country music legend, Johnny Cash, used the same melody with his original lyrics for Frankie’s Man, Johnny, in which Johnny is described as “a long-legged guitar picker with a wicked, wandering eye.” In album liner notes, Cash wrote “I wrote about myself and I honest-to-goodness have forgotten who that ‘Frankie’ was.”
Elvis Presley not only recorded Frankie and Johnny but starred in a movie loosely based
on the song with Donna Douglas, the actress better known as Ellie May Clampett on TV’s Beverly Hillbillies. In the movie, Elvis, as Johnny, does indeed get shot by Frankie (Douglas), but does not die. Her bullet is deflected by a charm he was wearing and everyone lives happily ever after.
In 1992, Bob Dylan recorded it using the title and lyric, Frankie and Albert. And those are just a few over the last century who have found this story compelling enough to retell in song.
Alice Fry vs. Nellie Bly
The femme fatale in early versions was always Alice Fry. But just as Johnny replaced Albert in later lyrics, Nellie Bly became the temptress who lured Frankie’s man into the situation that eventually killed him. In Rodgers’ 1929 record, he blamed Nellie Bly for Johnny’s weakness. There was a real Nellie Bly, a journalist who lived from 1864 to 1922 and achieved worldwide recognition for going undercover to expose deplorable conditions at a mental institution. According to PBS.org, she achieved status as a living folk hero for traveling around the world in less than eighty days. She did it in 72 days, beating the record of Jules Verne’s fictional character, Phileas Fogg, by eight days. She was never involved in a shooting but her name was appropriated by Rodgers, Elvis and others for the sake of a convenient rhyme and story line.
Murder or justifiable homicide? You decide.
In Jimmie Rodgers’ version of the song, Frankie is indeed guilty of murder. His verdict is declared with these lines:Frankie said to the warden, “What are they going to do?” The warden, he said to Frankie, “It’s the ‘lectric chair for you ‘Cause you shot your man. He was doing you wrong.”
But a more benevolent rendition is included in Lomax’ book, attributed to a version that originated in either St. Louis or Kansas City. The sympathetic jury lets Frankie off as described here:The jury went out on Frankie And sat under an electric fan Come back and said, “You’re a free woman, go kill yourself another man If he does you wrong; if he does you wrong.”
Frankie’s fate is up to you!
Now armed with two outcomes instead of one, I often install my audiences as the jury and act as the judge, instructing the ladies and gentlemen of the jury (the audience) to decide the outcome of the story and the song. And, of course, in capital murder cases, the judge is allowed to overrule the jury. But I rarely do. If you would like to listen to the facts and decide for yourself, Click here to hear my 1993 version and weigh the evidence for yourself.
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Les Kerr. Learn More about Les & follow on Facebook and Twitter at www.leskerr.com