Tag Archives: Blues traditionals

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.

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

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Folk classic Railroad Bill by Hobart Smith

Maynardville- folk musicians-tn1
Street musicians in Maynardville, Tennessee, USA

Folk classic Railroad Bill by Hobart Smith

In the winter of 1895 a story that later became a folklore was born just along the Louisville and Nashville railroad track. The story of Railroad Bill filled with action, about a career on the wrong side of the law. It was a recipe for many folk and blues singers and along them Hobart Smith and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. This song and especially the guitar tunes will keep ramblin’ in your mind.

Railroad Bill Story

The story about Railroad Bill was featured in Encyclopia of Alabama  by Ben Berntson of Auburn University and many more researchers. The stories about Railroad Bill began to surface in early 1895, “when an armed vagrant began riding the L&N boxcars between Flomaton and Mobile. He earned the nickname “Railroad Bill,” or sometimes just “Railroad,”. Rairoad Bill was a great shooter and time after time Bill escaped the law.

The Death of Railroad Bill

In an attempt to stop Railroad Bill the railroad detectives started a manhunt after the hitchhiker but he kept continuing. On April 6   in 1895 when they confronted an armed man probably Railroad Bill, He shot Baldwin County Deputy  Sheriff James H. Stewart. First they put a $ 500 bounty on his head, later the authorities had pooled a reward of $ 1.250 together in order to find Bill.

“The hunt for Railroad Bill persisted until March 7, 1896, when a man was gunned down by a host of law enforcement officials at Tidmore and Ward’s General Store in Atmore, a depot town along the L&N. Accounts of the final episode in Railroad Bill’s bloody career widely differ”.

See more at: Encyclopedia of Alabama

Folk Classic by Hobart Smith

Hobart Smith version Railroad Bill

Hobart Smith made a fantastic recording of Railroad Bill, the vocals are smooth like a Leadbelly or Big Bill Broonzy song. The guitar is stylistic like you also heard on Snooks Eaglin’ and Jesse Fullers’s records. This Old Time roots musician recorded a lot of songs during the forties for Alan Lomax who worked for the American Library of Congress.

You might also know Hobart Smith for recordings with Texas Gladden,  his sister. Born in Virginia Smith started perfroming at a young age with medicine shows. In those days he and his sister perfomed for several festivals. The made a whole lot of fans, at a certain point former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited them for a show at the white house. Richard Harrington, “Stephen Wade: Trusting in an Unsung Hero.” The Washington Post, 13 October 2006.

This folk classic carries a fantastic history and the performer who brings that history into art makes it even more special, therefore Hobart Smith will be a legend, just like Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill
He never worked, and he never will,
And it’s ride, ride, ride.

Railroad Bill’s a mighty mean man
Shot the light out of the poor brakeman’s hand

Railroad Bill, up on a hill
Lightin’ a seegar with a ten-dollar bill.

Railroad Bill took my wife,
If I didn’t like it, gonna take my life.

Goin’ on a mountain, goin’ out west
Thirty-eight special stickin’ out of my vest.

Buy me a pistol just as long as my arm
Shoot everybody ever done me harm.

Got a thirty-special in a forty-five frame,
I can’t miss ’cause I got dead aim.

Railroad Bill, he ain’t so bad
Whupped his mama, shot his old dad.

Early one morning, standing in the rain
Round the bend come a long freight train.

Railroad Bill a-comin’ home soon
Killed Mcmillan by the light of the moon

Mcmillan had a special train
When they got there they was prayin’

Kill me a chicken, send me the wing
They think I’m workin’, Lord, I ain’t doin’ a thing.

Kill me a chicken, send me the head,
Think I’m workin’, Lord, I’m layin’ in bed.

Gonna drink my whiskey, drink it in the wind
The doctor said it’d kill me but he didn’t say when

Photo Credit and Description
– English: Street musicians in Maynardville, Tennessee, USA, photographed in 1935.
– Date October 1935
– Source U.S. Library of Congress – Prints and Photographs Division
– Author Ben Shahn
This image is a work of an employee of the United States Farm Security Administration or Office of War Information domestic photographic units, taken as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States. See Copyright.

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