03 January, 2010

"Frankie" - Mississippi John Hurt

Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Seven: "Frankie" performed by Mississippi John Hurt. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in Memphis on February 14, 1928. Original issue Okeh 8560 (W400221).

Mississippi John Hurt was born in Avalon, Mississippi on July 3, 1893. He learned to play the guitar by the age of nine and spent his childhood and early adulthood playing for local dances and working as a farm hand. In 1923, at the age of thirty, Hurt began performing with fiddler Willie Namour. In 1928, Namour won a recording contract with Okeh Records in a fiddling contest and recommended Hurt to producer Tommy Rockwell. Rockwell auditioned Hurt and on the strength of that audition, Hurt was scheduled for a recording session in Memphis, Tennessee. Hurt cut two songs at that first session, including "Frankie." A second session was scheduled for December, 1928 in New York city, where Hurt recorded eleven songs, including "Spike Driver Blues," also included on the Anthology. The records failed to sell and Okeh went out of business due to the Depression. Hurt went back to sharecropping and performing locally. It wasn't until the early 1960s that Hurt was rediscovered by musicologist Tom Hoskins. Hoskins convinced Hurt to move to Washington, D.C. and to perform at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Hurt's performance at Newport propelled him to stardom among the folk revival audience. Hurt spent his remaining years performing and recording. He is one of only two performers on the Anthology to appear on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He died on November 2, 1966 of a heart attack in Grenada, Mississippi.

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. The story has also been translated to the big screen on a number of occasions, beginning in 1930 with Her Man starring Helen Twelvetrees.

Frankie was a good girl, everybody knows.
She paid a hundred dollars for Albert one suit of clothes.
He's her man, and he done her wrong.

Frankie went down to the corner saloon, she didn't go to be gone long.
She peeked through keyhole in the door, spied Albert in Alice's arms.
"He's my man, and he done me wrong."

Frankie called Albert. Albert says, "I don't hear."
"If don't come to the woman you love, gonna haul you outta here.
You my man, and you done me wrong."

Frankie shot ol' Albert, and she shot him three or four times.
Says, "Stroll back, out smokin' my gun. Let me see is Albert dyin'.
He's my man, and he done me wrong."

Frankie and the judge walked down the stand, and walked out side to side.
The judge says to Frankie, "You're gonna be justified.
Killin' a man, and he did you wrong"

Dark was the night, cold was on the ground.
The last word I heard Frankie say, "I done laid ol' Albert down.
He's my man, and he done me wrong."

I ain't gonna tell no story, and I ain't gonna tell no lie.
Well, Albert passed 'bout an hour ago, with a girl you call Alice Frye.
He's your man, and he's done you wrong.

Mississippi John Hurt is only the second African American performer to appear on the "Ballads" volume of the Anthology. As has been mentioned before, Harry Smith was careful not to identify the performers by race and was particularly proud that "for years, people thought that Mississippi John Hurt was a hillbilly." To modern ears, this seems a bit hard to believe. Hurt's accent and speech pattern (not to mention his thorough grounding in the blues idiom) certainly make him sound "blacker" to the modern listener than - say - Frank Hutchison or Charlie Poole (both of whom could make a legitimate claim to being called "hillbillies"). Similarly, I've always had trouble believing the reports that listeners had difficulty distinguishing the race of performers like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. If these reports (as well as Smith's claim regarding Hurt) are true, then perhaps they hearken back to a more innocent time, or at least a time before mass media had inundated us with voices to the point where we know what everybody sounds like.

Hurt's performance stands in stark contrast to the rowdy performances of the last three selections. His finger picking style and his voice are both gentle (indeed, Hurt's vocal style has been characterized as a "whisper" by more than one observer), almost conversational. Hurt's version of the familiar story omits some details (there is usually a scene where a bartender tells Frankie about Alice Frye/Nellie Bly) and adds others (I don't believe that any other version of the song includes the lyric "Dark was the night, cold was on the ground" - a line which seems to relate to Blind Willie Johnson's similarly titled recording). The speaker in Hurt's version also inserts himself into the story at the end of the song, saying that "the last word [he] heard Frankie say, "I done laid ol' Albert down." Hurt also takes the lyric usually spoken by the bartender and moves it to the end of the song, putting those words in the mouth of the speaker. Hurt also omits a lyric usually found in versions of "Frankie/Frankie and Albert/Frankie and Johnny":

Bring out your rubber tired carriages, bring out your rubber tired hacks.
There's twelve men going to that graveyard. There's eleven men coming back.

This blackly humorous lyric - had it been used here - would have been echoed by a similar line in Frank Hutchison's version of "Stackalee," thus depriving Smith of one of those connections between songs of which he was so fond.

"Frankie" is the last of three songs in a row concerning violence, particularly shootings. The next three songs all concern man-made disasters...

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Here's a version of "Frankie" based on Mississippi John Hurt's version performed in 1976 by Paul Brady and Artie McGlynn.

Here's Beth Orton from The Harry Smith Project performing "Frankie."

As a bonus, here's Elvis Presley and Donna Douglas performing a version of "Frankie and Johnny" from the film of the same title. There's a bit of the film before hand, featuring Harry "Sherman T. Potter" Morgan!

Download and listen to Mississippi John Hurt - "Frankie"


  1. Above there is an unknown as to why the name of Al Brett was changed to Johnny. I think I know the reason.. the Leighton Brothers; Frank and Bert (my great-grandfather))would hardly sing their song on the Vaudeville circuit as "Frankie and Albert were lovers". They would be mortified! Albert Leighton went on to be a Real Estate Broker in San Francisco after his Vaudeville days.