Previously in this series…
- Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
- Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
- Other people’s songs: They killed him
by Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood
Aaron: Bob chose this song to open his 1992 album Good as I Been to You. Based on true events it was originally copyrighted in 1904 and credited to Hughie Cannon. Bob’s version was based on an arrangement by Mississippi John Hurt.
Tony: I think this is Bob at his very, very best. The guitar playing is stunning, and his voice is perfect for this type of music. Indeed that is the simple message: it is not the song that stands out here, it is this stunning performance. Bob plays and sings with the fulsome impression that he really cares about this music – and do listen to the way the guitar part develops through the piece.
And although normally Aaron selects the music for these joint articles I want to cheat and slip in the work that Bob used to base his performance on. It is, like Bob’s recording, really worth a listen. The quality of the 78rpm is cracked in part, but it is still possible to understand just how wonderful this recording is.
Aaron: The song has been recorded over 250 times, here are three I have in my collection.
Elvis had a gold record in 1966 with his version Frankie & Johnny
Tony: By this stage the song had mutated so much that it takes a few moments to realise that there is any relationship between this – which became a popular ballad – and the original sublime piece. So, if I may, I’ll interject a small interlude (as it were).
As Aaron notes above, the song is based (at least according to many reports) on actual events in 1899, which are generally reported as 22 year old Frankie Baker shooting her 17 year old lover Allen Britt (sometimes called Albert) when he returned from a dancing competition in which he and Nelly Bly won the slow-dance prize (the “cakewalk”).
Britt died and at her trial Frankie Baker claimed she acted in self-defence. She was acquitted and lived on until 1952, tragically spending the latter part of her life in a psychiatric institution.
There is some dispute as to the origination of the piece, for it is reported in other places that the song was composed by Bill Dooley, but either way it reached public attention a couple of years later, and by then it was, as Aaron points out above, then credited to Hughie Cannon who also wrote “Won’t you come home Bill Bailey”.
Aaron: Lonnie Donegan and Van Morrison recorded a version for their 2000 The Skiffle Sessions album…
Tony: I don’t know for sure but I suspect that Lonnie Donegan is an unknown name in much of the world, but in the 1950s and early 1960s in the UK he was one of the biggest stars of popular music, specialising in skiffle – and a significant influence on the music of the era. He also had hits in the USA and was awarded an MBE in 2000, a couple of years before his death. Most of his performances had this sort of fun and vibrancy in them.
Aaron: Johnny Cash released it in 1959 as his third Columbia single with the title Frankie’s Man, Johnny.
Tony: This is Johnny Cash doing Johnny Cash. And I think it is worth comparing this version with the Lonnie Donnegan version … for me the Cash version is just going through the actions. There is none of the vibrancy of the earlier version, nor indeed any of the excitement generated by the music within Bob’s version. For me, (and of course this is just me) it’s just plinky plonk music. And I think this song deserves so much more than that.
But we have got Bob’s version, and the original, and the Skiffle Sessions version – and they are all wonderful. Three brilliant versions of one song: not bad going Aaron!