Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Frankie and Johnny, and Helen and Lee

I am aware that Valentine’s Day is already 5 days past, but darned if the romantic warm ‘n’ fuzzies aren’t still lingering with me like a rash from poison oak. As such, I will be excused for offering up what I will admit is a belated, but nevertheless Valentine’s Day-related post.


We should all be grateful that the following Valentine’s Day-related post is not on the lines of those blogs I wrote in 2010 and 2011, blogs written for various websites in my attempt to drum up sales for my Great Courses/Teaching Company Courses. For example, I wrote a couple of Valentine’s Day-themed blogs in 2011, one for Huffpost and the other for J-Date, as in “Jewish-Dating.” For those posts – entitled “Romantic Music” – I was tasked with recommending appropriately “romantic” music for an intimate, tête-à-tête Valentine’s Day evening. This is how they began:

“Fresh flowers, chilled champagne, and a candlelight dinner for two; the stereotypical trappings of a successful Valentine’s Day evening. But the sensual menu is still incomplete: smell, taste, touch, and sight are covered, but proper sound is still wanting.

Yes indeed, music, the purported feast of the gods, the indispensable aural lubricant for romance, must be chosen and chosen well.”

OMG; gag me with not just a spoon but an industrial-sized ladle. BTW, I will not waste your time with the music I recommended except to observe that it consisted of all the usual suspects, saccharine music for a Hallmark Holiday.

One song that wasn’t on my list back then but would surely be on it today is one that reflects the cynicism with which I now hold the entire St. Valentine’s Day trip. That song is Frankie and Johnny.

The Leighton Brothers, Frank (on the left, 1880-1927) and Bert (1877-1964)
The Leighton Brothers, Frank (on the left, 1880-1927) and Bert (1877-1964)

Frankie and Johnny

There are so many different versions of the song Frankie and Johnny that to this day, no one is precisely sure who originally wrote it. (Writing in 1962, a musicologist named Bruce Redfern Buckley unearthed 291 different versions of Frankie and Johnny!) The version we are most familiar with today was created by the Leighton Brothers (Frank and Bert) along with the then well-known folk musician Ren Shields (1868-1913) in 1908.

The lyric of the song tells the lurid tale of a prostitute named Frankie and her wayward boyfriend, Johnny. Here are the first nine of the song’s thirteen verses.

“Frankie and Johnny were lovers,
O Lordy, how they could love.
They swore to be true to each other,
Just as true as the stars above.
He was her man but he done her wrong.

Frankie and Johnny went walking,
Johnny had a brand new suit.
Frankie paid a hundred dollars,
Just to make her man look cute.
He was her man but he done her wrong.

Johnny said, “I’ve got to leave you,
But I won't be very long.
Don’t you wait up for me, honey,
Nor worry while I’m gone.”
He was her man but he done her wrong.

Frankie went down to the corner,
Stopped in to buy her some beer.
Says to the fat bartender,
“Has my Johnny man been here?”
He was her man but he done her wrong.

“Well, I ain’t going to tell you no story,
Ain’t going to tell you no lie.
Johnny went by ‘bout an hour ago,
With a girl named Nellie Bly.
He is your man but he’s doing you wrong.”

Frankie went home in a hurry,
She didn’t go there for fun.
She hurried home to get ahold
Of Johnny's shootin’ gun.
He was her man but he’s doing her wrong.

Frankie took a cab at the corner,
Says, driver step on this cab.
She was just a desperate woman,
Getting’ two-timed by her man.
He was her man but he’s doin’ her wrong.

Frankie got out at south Clark Street,
Looked in a window, so high.
Saw Johnny, man, a lovin’ up,
That high-brow Nellie Bly.
He was her man but he done her wrong.

Johnny saw Frankie a-comin’,
Out the back door he did scoot.
But Frankie took aim with her pistol,
And the gun went roota-toot-toot.
He was her man but he done her wrong.”

Ah, romance, don’t you think?

Now that’s a Valentine’s Day-appropriate love song! No flowers and carb-loaded chocolates but rather, genuine passion and three .44 caliber slugs!

The song was inspired by an actual event that took place in an apartment building at 212 Targee Street in St. Louis, Missouri’s red-light district. At 2am on the morning of October 15, 1899, a 22-year-old prostitute named Frankie Baker (1876-1952) shot and killed her lover and pimp, the 17-year-old Allen (or “Albert”) Britt.…

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