Frankie (Mississippi John Hurt)

I generally stay away from open tunings, partly because I have enough trouble keeping a guitar in tune in one tuning… but a lot of my favorite guitarists liked them, and they have a deep history in southern Black culture. In previous posts I wrote and talked about the way some early Black guitarists took banjo tunings and techniques and put them on guitar, demonstrating with Furry Lewis’s “Casey Jones” and Lead Belly’s “Poor Howard.” This is another example, from John Hurt, fitted with his lovely variant of the “Frankie and Albert” ballad.

I’ve already posted a more typical version of “Frankie and Johnny” — the white folk/pop variant of that ballad, and also written about the underlying story and its reinvention in my book, “Jelly Roll Blues.” Unlike other Black southern ballads from the same period (“Stackolee,” “Duncan and Brady,” “Delia,” “Louis Collins”) the Frankie and Albert ballads have virtually no overlap with the historical killing: Frankie Baker didn’t go out looking for Allen Britt, the man she shot, nor did she shoot him over another woman. He came home late one night, found her in a bed in the front room rather than the back room they normally shared, got angry and tried to cut her with a knife, and she shot him in self-defense.

Before I learned that story, I understood Hurt’s penultimate verse to end with a malapropism: I thought that when he sang “The judge said, ‘Miss Frankie, you’re gonna be justified’,” he meant she was going to be judged guilty, which is the usual ending in the Frankie ballads. Hurt may indeed have meant it that way, but in fact the judge did rule that she was justified. As she later recalled:

“I simply had protected myself.… You know, I was afraid of Albert. He beat me unmercifully a few nights before the big-blow-off. My eye was festered and sore from that lacin’ when I went before Judge Clark. He noticed it, too.…The judge even gave me back my gun. Don’t know what I did with it. Guess I pawned it or gave it away. Everybody carried a gun in those days.”

Hurt’s original recording of this piece, in 1928, is one of the technical oddities of that era: the song was too long to fit on one side of a 78 rpm disc, and rather than editing it to be shorter, the engineers slowed down the machine to get his full version — so the recording played back significantly faster than he performed it, and pitched two full tones higher.

As it happens, the higher key also felt more comfortable for my voice, so I’ve tended to play this song capoed on the fourth fret — but I’ve recently been traveling with a little guitar from the 1940s that is set up for slide and sounds much better open than capoed. That felt a little uncomfortable at first, in terms of the singing, but it struck me that Hurt didn’t have a significantly deeper voice than I have; he was just much more relaxed. So I’ve be trying to relax my voice and sing it where he sang it, and likewise to play his basic arrangement throughout, rather than trying to come up with interesting variations for the instrumental breaks — not to be more “authentic” or to imitate him more exactly, but because it sounds better this way.

I’m not going to say one can never improve on John Hurt, or come up with interesting variants of his arrangements. I’ve posted a lot of his songs here,* and on most of them I’ve added my own variations. But this one feels right to me the way it is, and the more I play it, the more convinced I am that this is the way I want to keep doing it.

*Previous John Hurt posts include: “Monday Morning Blues,” “Satisfied and Tickled Too,” “Coffee Blues,” “Candyman,” “Stagolee,” “Louis Collins,” “Ain’t No Telling (Pallet on the Floor),” “Got the Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied,” “Richlands Women,” “See See Rider,” “Spike Driver’s Blues,” “My Creole Belle,” and “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me.”