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Classic Songs: How a St. Louis murder led to the traditional “Frankie and Johnny”

There is something special about the city of St. Louis in music history. It is the songs and the musicians who created history. We all know the legendary St. Louis Blues by W.C. Handy, and don’t forget the great St. Louis Jimmy Oden who wrote the Blues classic “Goin ‘Down Slow”

Murder in St. Louis as inspiration

Well, I heard a song called Frankie and Johnny multiple time through Leadbelly and Sam Cooke, who both made in their own way made beautiful soulful versions of it. Also, Elvis has an album titled Frankie and Johnny which was part of the movie with the same name where he performed the song. But behind this great song, there is a story.

According to the Smithsonian Folkways, “In October 1899, a murder took place in a St. Louis apartment (St. Louis murders have inspired multiple ballads, such as “Duncan and Brady”).

Frankie and Albert

Frankie Baker (1876–1952) killed her lover Al “Albert” Britt in a jealous rage after he went to a dance with another woman”,  In some lyrics, Frankie was a prostitute and Al, her pimp.” They also say that The shooting occurred in Britt’s room at 212 Targee Street. You can find multiple investigational stories about the murder online.

First version of Frankie and Johnny

back to the song, the Smithsonian Folkways tells that “the version known as “Frankie and Johnny” was created by Tin Pan Alley and Ragtime composer Hughie Cannon in 1904. It was so popular that by the 1920s, folklorists like Carl Sandburg collected it and published it in his folk song collection. Over time Sanberg collected several variations of the song, including a couple versions called “Frankie and Albert”, like from artist as  Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt.

In the same year as Hughie Cannon, there was also another artist playing this song, it was singer-songwriter Bill Dooley. Nevertheless, the credits of Frankie and Johnny went to Hughie Cannon.

Versions of traditional song Frankie and Johnny

Over the years almost every folk and blues singer recorded or performed a version of “Frankie and Johnny”. Even in Jazz you will find versions of the song. I really like Louis Armstrong’s version which brings some honky-tonking vibes.

Personally, I most like the version of Sam Cooke and Leadbelly but I find it more interesting that you see so many musicians interpreted a song in their unique style. Johnny Cash really brings the country and Big Bill Broonzy the blues. There is no rule book to say a song is a traditional, but If more than two hands of world class musicians recorded a song in their own style you can say there is something special about it. In the case of Frankie and Johnny”, it most certainly is!

Sam Cooke


Johnny Cash


Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians

 

Big Bill Broonzy

Elvis Presley

 

Photo By Huddie and Martha Ledbetter, Wilton, Connecticut, from the Lomax Collection, 1935, This work has been released into the public domain by its author, John & Ruby Lomax

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