Thursday, January 2, 2014


You might not recognize the song by name, but you've heard it. In fact, it's been recorded 256 times by artists like Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Sam Cooke, Lena Horne, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Van Morrison, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Jack Johnson.  It tells the story of a woman, Frankie, who finds that her man Johnny was "making love to" another woman and shoots him dead. Frankie is then arrested; in some versions of the song she is also executed. It was originally penned by a St. Louis songwriter named Jim Dooley and while he took some liberties with the tale, he was inspired by a real-life murder. But how close did he stick to the story? Not close at all, declared Frances Baker, reputed to be the "Frankie" of the song.

France Baker of St. Louis -- "Frankie" of the popular song

In fact, there was nothing that made Baker angrier than hearing "Frankie and Johnny," especially since her St. Louis neighbors knew that she was the woman immortalized in the ballad. Baker never denied that, as an emotional 22-year-old in 1899, she shot her 17-year-old boyfriend (name Allen, called Albert and not Johnny) but what made her angry is the song's description of her as a loose woman.

Even after she was acquitted of murder on the grounds of self-defense, there was no escaping from the song's claim that she was of "easy virtue." She felt publicly humiliated and tried to escape her shame by moving to Omaha and then Portland, but the song followed her. And the embarrassment did not end there. A play, and then a movie in 1936, dramatized the song's love triangle. In 1942, Baker decided that she had put up with enough and sued Republic Pictures for defamation of character. More than 42 years after the shooting, "Frankie" was able to tell her side of the story. 

She was nothing like the character in the song, she said. She did not wear diamonds of fancy clothes and her income was not derived from loose morals, but from "washing and ironing and scrubbing steps." She even claimed that she was not upset when she found out her boyfriend was seeing Alice Pryor. She was asleep when Albert came to her house -- intent on killing her, she told the court. He threatened her, first with a lamp and then a knife. Luckily, Frances kept a silver-plated pistol at her bedside and she shot him -- not three times like in the song, but just once as he was standing next to her bed. 

Baker was so convincing with her story that the court ruled against her -- the jury wasn't even sure that the song was about her at all. It turned out that there were other versions of the song, with female characters with names like Annie and Lilly. In the end, Baker lost the suit.

But she went to her grave believing that she had been humiliated. She returned to Portland and in 1950, was committed to a mental institution. She died there two years later, at the age of 75.

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