Archive for August 10th, 2018

Frankie and Johnny is an old American traditional murder ballad. What an odd term, murder ballad. It sounds like it should be American and it certainly has been well adapted here. But it does have roots going back to 17th century Europe. It just came here as part of our immigrant tradition.

Anyway, Frankie and Johnny is one of our best known murder ballads, one with a history that some says goes back to the 1830’s. It tells the story of a woman who is wronged by her philandering man and vents her anger by killing him.

The artist Thomas Hart Benton illustrated the murder scene in a print (at the top of the page) as well as part of his epic American mural located in the Missouri State House in Jefferson City. In the photo below, you can see it just above the doorway.

As a song it has been recorded by several hundred different artists in a wide variety of genres. I was reminded of my favorite version the other day when it came on my dad’s radio when I was visiting him the other day. This version from the great Sam Cooke was one that I listened to incessantly when I was a kid. The lyrics and Cooke’s vocal inflections are engraved in my memory bank. I believe that if I ever suffer from the dementia that affects my dad I would remember this song and Cooke’s take on it.

It is a tremendous version of a great song that builds and builds to a roaring crescendo. Cooke definitely puts his own signature on this song, as he did on just about everything he ever sang. This has stuck in my head for the last few days.

Give a listen. We’ll call today Murder Ballad Friday.


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