Two weeks ago, we looked at a song about a poor girl murdered by her lover; last week, we met two young women unfazed by men. This week, the logical progression proceeds to a lady who just will not be trifled with..."he was her man, but he done her wrong."
Both of my grandmothers played piano and sang, reflecting what was considered a proper social education for girls born as they were in 1892 and 1900. While most of their repertoires consisted of often long-forgotten popular songs from their childhoods, both occasionally drifted into performing what might be called a kind of derivative folk music, often Irish airs with rewritten American lyrics. Occasionally these ladies were capable of some surprises. My maternal grandma - a rather prim and conservative woman - would occasionally slip into a bit of honky-tonk or ragtime, and it was from her that I first remember hearing "Frankie and Johnny," a honky-tonk/ragtime classic if the genres ever produced one.
Most of the major folklorists like John A. Lomax and Carl Sandburg believe that F&J is very old for an American folk tune, probably pre-dating the Civil War, though others maintain that the spate of published versions in the first decade of the 20th century points to a later origin. It seems like a good bet, though, that the 1831 murder of Charlie Silver by his wife Frankie Stewart Silver (with an axe - ouch! - and in North Carolina again!) might well be the song's inspiration, since in the folkways of the region Mrs. Silver did in her husband in a jealous rage. In actual fact, Mrs. Silver (all of 17 at the time of the killing) pleaded self-defense in the face of an imminent threat from her drunken husband. While the jury initially refused to believe her, eventually seven of the members signed a petition to commute her death sentence on the grounds that she had in fact been abused. It didn't work, and Frankie Silver was hanged for the crime. A good brief summary of the case appears HERE.
An early version from 1927 of what has become the standard songbook version of the song is done here by Frank Crumit:
Now Crumit's lyrics are for the most part the old honky-tonk song, but fans of the "You're Gonna Miss Me/Leaving Home" version will recognize that Crumit interpolated some of those lines into the middle of his arrangement.
A chronological digression here. Around 1962, the great Bob Gibson rearranged F&J on his Where I'm Bound album that I profiled a few weeks back. Now the Bob Gibson Legacy site has uploaded a fine performance video of Bob doing the number HERE, but it can't be put on this page - so here is a trio called Dirty Dishes doing Gibson's arrangement:
In 1908, Frank Leighton and Boyd Bunch copyrighted a F&J version whose lyrics (some in Crumit's record) are very close to what banjo legend Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers came up with, again in the 20s:
I ran across of video of Fiddlin' John Carson doing this version at about the same time but lost it. If I find it again, I'll re-post it.
In turn, John Cohen, Mike Seeger, and Tom Paley of the New Lost City Ramblers adapted (and copyrighted) Poole's lyrics with a respectful vocal and instrumentally skillful version in about 1959:
Mike Seeger of the group next introduces (1980s vintage, I'd say) The Stillhouse Reelers doing a rendition that they adapted directly from Charlie Poole* with one difference that I believe to be significant and will deal with below - they do it a lot faster:
It was the NLCR version of the song that was the clear and direct inspiration for the Kingston Trio's re-named "You're Gonna Miss Me." We know this because Dave Guard copyrighted the song, including the names of Cohen, Seeger, and Paley. There is a YouTube video of a fragment of the KT rendition (again, non-embeddable) HERE; the full studio version sounds like this:
The KT gives the number its trademark full-speed, hell-bent-for-leather treatment (with an able assist from producer Voyle Gilmore, who brings up the musicians' instruments at the precise moment of their vocal solos before nicely re-blending on the choruses). Perhaps it was this that excited some of the distaste that NLCR John Cohen expressed for the group. In fact, Cohen once remarked (on the Woodsongs radio program, I believe) something to the effect that the only tradition that the KT seemed to have any respect for was that of a frat party. That leaves open the question, for me at least, of why a similar adaptation of the song by The Stillhouse Reelers above does not come in for similar censure - or why all these versions are using unattributed material that clearly came from Poole (who in turn seems to have heard and used the Leighton version). It's not really important because all of these versions are enjoyable. Just wondering.