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Saturday, January 7, 2017

"Frankie and Johnny" the facts, sorta, kinda, or at least the story - Keeping the Public in Public Domain


I love to include music in my storytelling, but know I'll never be a true musician.  Today's story is a song I started working on because Paint Creek Folklore Society's April song swap theme is "First Names."  I need lots of lead time to play and be half way entertaining, so I started thinking about each month's theme as soon as they were announced in the fall.

I've never believed a good story should get in the way of the facts, but knew there were several first names thrown around in the song of "Frankie and Johnny."  I finally stopped playing it long enough to follow my curiosity and see if there really was a case that inspired the song.  Of course, just as in the past, the first stop was the encyclopedia, today it's Wikipedia.  They meandered along letting the reader know it was inspired by one or more murders.  The most likely murder had a connection to Saint Louis, where I grew up, so I was off and running through references to learn more.  In the process I found a few personal connections.

The most promising information about Frankie & Johnny (or Albert, or Allen) came from the St. Louis Police Veterans Association historical website. In 1899 the address, 212 Targee Street, was a four block street running north and south from Market on the North to Poplar on the South and between 14th and 15th Streets.  That's now where Kiel Opera House is located at 14th and Market. I was fascinated as I knew it had once been a 'red-light' district.  The St. Louis police say the area contains some most interesting best kept secrets.  All I know is it was just down the street from the Plaza Square Apartments where I had my first apartment on my own and the YWCA where I had my first full-time job.

This is where the legendary song "Frankie and Johnny" originated and is based on a true story about feuding lovers.  At this location 22-year-old Frankie Baker shot and killed 17-year old Albert, also known as Allen, Britt on October 15, 1899.   The shooting apparently was over another woman.  The police account says her name was Alice Pryor, but newspaper accounts called her Nellie Bly, who was no relation to the famous newspaperwoman.  Britt died at City Hospital where my mother worked more than half a century later.  Frankie, by the way, was able to successfully plead self defense (!) and was acquitted of the charge of murder, dying in 1950 in Portland, Oregon
So much for the verses I had been practicing about her execution.


There are many versions of the song.  The one on the St. Louis Police Veterans Association is as good as any.  I especially enjoy the final verse, not just that it avoids the error some make about Frankie's  non-existent execution, but the part about "This story ain't got no moral, this story ain't got no end."  The same is certainly true as you can't keep a good song down, factually or otherwise.

Frankie and Johnnie were lovers
Lordy oh how they did love
Swore to be true to each other
True as the stars above
He was her man he wouldn't do her wrong

Frankie went down to the barroom
Just for to get her some beer
Said to the fat bartender
has my lover Johnny been here
he is my man he wouldn't do me wrong

I ain't gonna tell you no stories
I ain't gonna tell you no lies
I saw your Johnnie half an hour ago
Making love to Nellie Bly
He is your man but he's doing you wrong

Frankie went back to the hotel
She didn't go for fun
Frankie went back to get a hold of
 Johnnie's shooting gun
He was her man but he was doing her wrong

Frankie drew back her kimono
pulled out her lil 44
root toot toot three times she shot
right through the hardwood door
She shot her man cos he was doin her wrong

Roll me over easy
Roll me over slow
Honey don't roll me on my left side
Cause the bullet hurts me so
I was your man but I was doin you wrong

Roll out your rubber tyred hearses
Roll our your rubber tyred hacks (?)
Twelve men goin to the graveyard
Eleven men coming back
He was her man but he was doin her wrong

The sheriff arrested Frankie
Threw her in jail the next day
Locked her up in a prison cell
And threw the key away
For shootin her man cos he was doin her wrong

This story ain't got no moral
this story ain't got no end
this story only goes to show
that there ain't no good in men
he was her man but he was doin her wrong.

I guess you could call this a public domain story as the song is certainly safely there, as are the newspaper accounts.  I enjoyed glimpsing and remembering the St. Louis Globe Democrat and the St. Louis Post Dispatch.  Since I know some of my readers especially look for my Keeping the Public in Public Domain stories, I'm going to stretch it a bit and include it.

Unless it's for teenagers, however, I don't think this story and song will be included in 2018 Summer Reading programs when the multi-state cooperative's theme is music with the slogan "Libraries Rock!"  I have other stories and songs to rock the pre-teens.

Here's my closing for days when I have a story in Keeping the Public in Public Domain
***************** 

This is part of a series of postings of stories under the category, "Keeping the Public in Public Domain."  The idea behind Public Domain was to preserve our cultural heritage after the authors and their immediate heirs were compensated.  I feel strongly current copyright law delays this intent on works of the 20th century.  My own library of folklore includes so many books within the Public Domain I decided to share stories from them.  I hope you enjoy discovering new stories.  


At the same time, my own involvement in storytelling regularly creates projects requiring research as part of my sharing stories with an audience.  Whenever that research needs to be shown here, the publishing of Public Domain stories will not occur that week.  This is a return to my regular posting of a research project here.  (Don't worry, this isn't dry research, my research is always geared towards future storytelling to an audience.)  Response has convinced me that "Keeping the Public in Public Domain" should continue along with my other postings as often as I can manage it. 

Other Public Domain story resources I recommend -
  • There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection.  I have long recommended it and continue to do so.  He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or expression you like by pressing one key. http://folkmasa.org/motiv/motif.htm
  • You may have noticed I'm no longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest database, although his offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for those of us seeking specific types of stories.  There's another site, FairyTalez claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales, folktales, and fables" and they are "fully optimized for phones, tablets, and PCs", free and presented without ads.
Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"
You can see why I recommend these to you. Have fun discovering even more stories!


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