Parallel Anthology Track 21

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Icon Public Domain.jpg Track 21: Mississippi John Hurt - Frankie   Okeh 8560; Recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, 14.2.1928

Anthology Track 21 label.jpg

Record label does not assign authorship. Nor does either Anthology booklet, or

The Roud Folksong Index classifies this song as a version of Roud 254. A Roud number search returns a number of versions which pre-date Hurt's recording dating back to 1909 across a very wide geographical area (N Carolina, Texas, Kentucky, Missouri, California).

According to the Where Dead Voices Gather blog:

Like the story of Stackalee, "Frankie" is based on a documented real-life incident:

"Allen Britt, colored, was shot and badly wounded shortly after 2 o’clock yesterday morning by Frankie Baker, also colored. The shooting occurred in Britt’s room at 212 Targee Street, and was the culmination of a quarrel. The woman claimed that Britt had been paying attentions to another woman. The bullet entered Britt’s abdomen, penetrating the intestines. The woman escaped after the shooting." - St Louis Globe-Democrat, October 16, 1899.

Somehow, this minor incident of domestic violence caught the public imagination and was immortalized in song. The first published version of the song appeared in 1904 and was copyrighted by Hughie Cannon. Another version was copyrighted by Frank and Bert Leighton in 1908, under the title "Bill, You Done Me Wrong." It was republished in 1912 under the title "Frankie and Johnny." Exactly when and how Albert (Al Britt) morphed into "Johnny" is unknown. It was in the 1912 version by the Leighton brothers, however, that Alice Frye turned into "Nellie Bly." The now familiar melody of the song (not used in Hurt's version) was derived from an unrelated song (also published in 1912) titled "You're My Baby," written by Nat Ayer. The song has been recorded at least 256 times over the years. It has been performed by Leadbelly, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Lena Horne, Lonnie Donegan, Bob Dylan, Joe and Eddie, Taj Mahal, Charlie Patton, Charlie Poole, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley (who also starred in a film version), Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Vincent, Fats Waller, Van Morrison, Michael Pappas, Brook Benton, Stevie Wonder, Jack Johnson, Michelle Shocked, and Lindsay Lohan, just to name a few.

Hughie Cannon died in 1912 ([1]), while Bert Leighton did not die until 1964 ([2]). This means that the first version mentioned above has been public domain since 1st January 1983, while the second is in copyright until 1st January 2035. However, it is unclear which of the two, if either, is related to the Anthology version, and the blog states that the "familiar melody of the song [is] not used in Hurt's version".

According to the Old Weird America blog:

With “Frankie and Johnny” (the most usual name of the song) we have a fine example of a folk song that entered the world of popular music via writers and composers of Tin Pan Alley (and later via Hollywood movies) who reshaped the old song and made a new version that became “the” version that everybody sang, included folksingers. How old and from which event came the original “Frankie and Albert” (The change to Johnny as the man’s name was made by Tin Pan Alley writers. Johnny sounded more good for them than Albert) was well debated over the years between scholars and folk music writers. Some said it goes back as far as the Civil War but the first printed versions were all from the early 20th century. The original ballad was of course inspired by the story of Frankie Baker, a young black girl who killed her lover Allen “Al” Britt in St-Louis in 1899 because he was flirting with another girl, Alice Pryor (it’s easy to see how “Al Britt” became ”Albert”, less for the girl’s name, who becomes Nellie Blye or Alice Frye, etc…) But an older version could have derived from a 1832 famous murder case, the murdering of Charles Silver by her wife Frances. Murder ballads sometimes are being changed in the course of time to fit a new event, to something people could relate more easily. It is said that soon after Frankie Baker got arrested for the murder of her lover, people started to “sing the news” in the streets, selling printed ballads about the affair. The first version of the song was called simply “Frankie killed Allen” and was composed by Bill Dooley a St.Louis pianist. [...] In the beginning it was popular mostly with afro-americans in the South but whites learned it soon from recordings of the popular Tin Pan Alley’s versions, except maybe for appalachian musicians who all heard black folk music and sang their own version of the song which is a bit different in the melody, usually under the name “Frankie Baker” (Listen to Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham,Louise Foreacre and the Virginia Mountain Boys on my compilation, their versions are quite similar). The popularity of the song never decreased and became the subject of theater plays, movies, books. The universal themes of love, betrayal and murder coupled with a simple Blues structure, catchy words and melody made it the most common folk song played by american musicians and singers in the 20th century. Over the years it was shared by jazz players, rock n’roll teenage bands, folk singers, country and hilbilly musicians, Bluesmen, lounge singers. If there ever was a song that is public domain, this is it…

In the absence of any specific claims to authorship of this version, it is reasonable to treat this composition as public domain.

Parallel anthology main index page

Alternative Versions

Frankie by Paul Clayton    recorded in 1956 (according to Spotify
According to liner notes, this is "One of the most widely known of all American ballads, the origin and history of this piece are still largely a mystery. [...] The version Mr
Clayton sings here was collected in Wise County.
Frankie and Albert by Lead Belly    unknown recording date, but Lead Belly died in 1949 (wikipedia): Spotify
According to notes on reverse of record cover, this, "like many similar ballads in the tradition of other countries, is really a folk opera with Leadbelly sitting offstage, giving
stage directions. Note the similarity with Paul Clayton's "collected" version above.
Frankie and Johnny by Pete Seeger    recorded in 1957 according to Folkways): Spotify
No claim to authorship or arrangement on liner notes
Frankie And Johnny by Mrs. Oakley Fox    recorded in 1960: Max Hunter Collection
Frankie and Johnny by Lonnie Donegan    recorded in 1956-62 (as this is taken from album The Collection 1956-1962): Spotify