Traditional

Over at “The Song In My Head Today” Holly Hughes has started an ambitious project — “52 Girls” in which she will post 52 songs that each have a girl’s name in the title. So far it’s fascinating, including familiar songs that are well worth re-visiting, and songs I’d never heard before.

It’s gotten me thinking about songs that would fit that criteria. There are lot’s of them, it’s a pop cliche, but I have surprisingly few in my music collection (or, at least, surprisingly few that are both worth recommending, and not so famous that they don’t need a recommendation). The one that I was thinking about most recently, which turned into this post is the old classic, “Frankie And Johnny.”

One thing I realized, after I’d started looking for it online, is that I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a recorded version of the song (looking, I do have a copy of the Harry Smith collection which includes the recording by Mississippi John Hurt, but it was different enough from the version that I knew that I didn’t pay that much attention to it). It was a song that I heard people singing when I was growing up. I knew it was a famous and influential song, but it was interesting for me to learn more about this history.

From Wikipedia, some highlights:

“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.

. . . [various versions published between 1899 and 1912]

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 Vicksburg (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.”

At least 256 different recordings of “Frankie and Johnny” have been made since the early 20th century. . . . The story of Frankie and Johnny has been the inspiration for several 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’s 1987 play, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, was adapted for a 1991 film titled Frankie and Johnny starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.

The two things that jump out at me, are that it’s more famous than I would have guessed, and that it’s a song which has has been done by both white and black musicians for a long time. There aren’t that many songs that have been recorded by Pete Seeger and Sam Cooke, or by Roscoe Holcomb and Stevie Wonder. Having listening to about a different recordings on youtube, here are a couple that stand out to me. If you don’t want to go through all of the, I recommend skipping to the last one, by Beth Orton, for a remarkable contemporary recording.

I really like Big Bill Broonzy’s performance as representative of the traditional blues version. The thing that strikes me listening to that is the way in which the betrayal and murder play themselves out in public. Frankie is told about the affair by a bartender who presumably knows exactly what’s going on. In this version she finds Jonny in a hotel, but in many she shoots him through a pair of swinging doors. In either case, there’s nothing secret or hidden

Jimmie Rodgers also recorded an early version (the video dates it to 1929/30). The lyrics are similar but in this case the betrayal is even more out in the open. After talking to the Bartender Frankie, “looks over the transom. She saw to her surprise. There on a cot sat Johnny making love to Nelly Bly.” In this case, unlike the previous one, Frankie ends up sentenced to death, rather than just imprisoned. But the very last lines of the song are this interesting coda, “This story has no moral, this story has no end. This story just goes to show that there ain’t no good in men. He was her man and he done her wrong.” That, again, shifts the emphasis away from a personal identification with Frankie or Johnny and towards it just being a (particularly dramatic) story about the sort of bad things that happen in the world. That’s part of why this and the previous version make me think of it as a story belonging to a community, rather than just about two people.

By contrast, in Pearl Bailey’s excellent recording the focus is shifted towards Frankie and Johnny. For one thing, changing the person who tells Frankie where to find Johnny from a bartender to a “soda jerk” makes the background feel more comic and less believable (and, unlike the two previous versions, there aren’t any words sung in the voice of the bartender / soda jerk — we’re just told what he said) . Secondly, Pearl Baily adds a variety of embellishments which identify with Frankie like when she mutters, “I don’t blame her she should kill him.”

The version that I heard growing up was clearly based on the New Lost City Ramblers recording, which has a completely different set of lyrics, which appear to be credited to Charlie Poole.

Finally, I came across an amazing video of Beth Orton. It took me a minute or two to appreciate it. At first it felt affected, and I had to adjust to her tempo, which is significantly slower (and the intensity does pick up as the song goes along). But once I got used to it, I have nothing but praise and admiration. I think it’s a completely successful blending of contemporary and traditional style, and up there as one of the best modern recordings of a traditional song that I’ve heard.

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