Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Considering the Frankie Baker of "Frankie and Johnny"

Frankie Baker
I was really fascinated by this "Frankie and Johnny" episode of the podcast Murder Ballads produced by Laura Morris. In particular, I was interested in the central figure Frankie Baker, a Black woman who lived in St. Louis. I've spent quiet a bit of time thinking about the notorious Stagolee, born Lee Shelton, who was from St. Louis, but Baker had escaped me. 

[RelatedStagger Lee, Murder Ballads, Laura Morris, and me]

Most notably, she had been whitewashed -- presented as a White woman -- so it was less likely that she would have come up in studies of folklore and African American history the way that Stagolee did. Too, so much of the discourse concerning bad folk figures concentrates on bad men, not women. These two reasons explain why Frankie Baker was erased.

In 1899, Baker, who by most accounts was a prostitute, was attacked by her lover and possible pimp, Allen Britt, who was a talented pianist in St. Louis. At one point as he advanced to strike Baker, she pulled out a gun a shot him. He died days later. 

Not long after that, a local musician, Bill Dooley, composed a song about what happened. The song circulated among musicians in the city and region and then across the country. Although initially known as "Frankie and Allen" and then "Frankie and Albert," musicians eventually changed the wording to "Frankie and Johnny." 

Laura Morris notes that she is aware of more than four hundred versions of "Frankie and Johnny" songs. The songs inspired films, which cast white women and men to play Frankie and Johnny. That casting was how Baker was erased. 

A ruling of justifiable homicide, in this case self-defense, made it possible for Baker to avoid serving time for shooting Britt. However, as Morris explained, hearing the song and knowing about the movies, which white people made millions off of, was a kind of prison for Baker. She could not escape reminders about a disturbing personal incident that were sensationalized in artistic productions, and her troubles became a source of profit for many, except her.

Hearing Baker's story retold on Murder Ballads inspired me to think about Baker, and I hope to make sure we cover her in my courses as we discuss African American folk culture. 


No comments: