A common delusion among young artists is that if you get within range of some potential discoverers, you’ll get discovered. I spent much of my late teens and early twenties subscribing to this delusion, and shortly after returning from Europe in 1979 I attempted to give fate a nudge by dropping off an audition cassette at the Folkways Records office in New York. I figured if I went there myself I might run into the legendary Moe Asch and charm him into recording me…
…and as a perfect example of just how delusional I was, one of the items on that audition tape was my version of one of the most over-recorded songs in the American folk pantheon: “Frankie and Johnny.”
Of course, I wasn’t just singing any old version of “Frankie and Johnny” — I had found a racy version in a book illustrated by the New Yorker cartoonist John Held, Jr., that included explicit lines about Frankie working in a crib house and Johnny spending her money on parlor house whores. I figured the gritty realism of this lyric would catch Asch’s attention — that is, I figured Asch, who had recorded Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, would be impressed by the gritty realism of a lyric learned from a New Yorker cartoonist. Or to put the issue more plainly, I was a pretentious young idiot.
So I went by the Folkways offices, and of course Moe Asch was in a back office to which I never penetrated, but I dropped off the tape and the nice woman in the front office promised he’d listen to it. I noticed a lot of African art around, so I went home and studied up on that, figuring if I managed to meet him the next time I could make an impression by having an intelligent conversation about Dogon masks and Senufo birds. And a month or so later I went back, and the nice woman gave back my cassette — I don’t know if Asch had listened, but if not he’d at least had the decency to fast-forward it to the end of side one, as if he’d listened. And that was that. I never got to meet him, and had to start my own record label a few years later to inflict my music on the world.
So that’s my story, and now I’m a considerably older idiot and suitably embarrassed by my youthful naivete, but I still like this lyric and love Held’s woodcuts. I recently checked the book and find that I cut the lyric down quite a bit and forgot some of the goofier verses, but I still do it pretty much the way I did then.
If I were to try to do an authentic version today I would take a different tack, tracing the court records of the historical murder and at least singing the male protagonist’s name as “Albert,” the way John Hurt did, or maybe even “Allen, which was his real name. He was Allen Britt, shot by Frankie Baker in St Louis in 1899, and there are myriad websites detailing the story in more or less garish detail. But what the hell… I got it from John Held, and I’m ready to confess the fact and recommend his book. It’s been reprinted at least once, and is well worth tracking down, if only for his wonderful illustrations.