- Frankie and Johnny: Race, Gender, and the Work of African American Folklore in 1930s America by Stacy I. Morgan
During the first half of the twentieth century, "Frankie and Johnny" was one of the most familiar songs in America, but why would a song that featured prostitution and murder in a black red-light district in St. Louis, Missouri, at the close of the nineteenth century become ubiquitous within American culture during the Great Depression? While fascination with African American vernacular culture grew substantially after World War I and throughout the 1920s, Stacy I. Morgan suggests that New Deal patronage and its emphasis on the experiences of the "'common man'" intensified interest in African American culture (p. 22). Morgan persuasively argues that "Frankie and Johnny," like the African American folktale of John Henry, became an archetype of the common man and woman struggling against adversity during the Depression.
After examining the song's most likely origin, the 1899 murder of Allen Britt by his lover, prostitute Frankie Baker, Morgan uses five adaptions developed during the Depression as case studies. He not only charts how Britt's murder became a part of African American folklore, crossing racial and class lines to capture the nation's imagination, but also demonstrates "how deeply representations of folklore mattered in debates regarding race and gender, as well as regional and national identity, during the 1930s" (p. 31). The case studies begin and end with the work of African American cultural producers, Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter and Sterling Brown. Ledbetter's "Frankie and Albert" (1933) contains female agency, and it highlights the tragic realities of intraracial violence. Similarly, Brown's poem "Frankie and Johnny" (1932) uses social realism to present interracial violence by exposing the pathology of lynching. Frankie is portrayed as a white woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon to ensnare her prey, Johnny. In Mae West's film adaption, She Done Him Wrong (1933), the main character, Lady Lou, like Sterling Brown's Frankie, weaponizes her sexuality. Unlike the twisted character in Brown's piece, West's uses female sexuality as a "contrast between Victorian and modernist cultural values" (p. 149). West's critique of Victorian womanhood, Morgan argues, borrows much from African American culture, particularly from blues singers like Bessie Smith, whose lyrics "encouraged women to claim sexual desire matter-of-factly" (p. 157).
While the works of Ledbetter, Brown, and West use the "Frankie and Johnny" ballad to critique traditional constructions of race and/or gender, white male cultural producers Thomas Hart Benton and John Huston used the ballad to reinforce hegemonic structures. In Benton's mural panel Frankie and Johnny, from A Social History of the State of Missouri (1935–1936), black subjects are comedic caricatures reminiscent of the minstrel tradition, and Johnny appears to nervously bend over while an agitated Frankie shoots him in the buttocks. Similarly, Huston's play Frankie and Johnny (1929) uses comic melodrama to reduce Frankie's act of self-agency to a moment of hysteria.
Morgan's penetrating use of archival and theoretical sources creates complex and dynamic historical narratives of the ballad's journey into [End Page 504] mainstream America. However, with the exception of Brown's poem, racial crossings become euphemistic for racial appropriations. Notably, the book ends with the failed attempts of the real Frankie Baker to "reclaim control of the narrative of her own life and reputation" (p. 213). Her failure serves as a haunting reminder that the racial crossings of the Depression era were seldom an equal exchange. Morgan's brilliant examination of race and gender in creative appropriations of the "Frankie and Johnny" ballad furthers the discourse on how African American folk culture contributed to the unique characteristics of American modernism during the 1930s.