- Frankie and Johnny: Race, Gender, and the Work of African American Folklore in 1930s America by Stacy I. Morgan
Stacy Morgan opens Frankie and Johnny with an exploration of the history of folk song collection and dissemination by renowned and lesser-known folklorists from eighteenth-century Europe to early twentieth-century America. Chapter 1 traces the history and rise of the African American folk song "Frankie and Johnny" (a.k.a. "Frankie and Albert") in the American psyche. Morgan's examination weaves intriguing connections between the contexts of folk songs and the recording business of the early twentieth century, marking the appeal of several "race records" across racial lines. With his discussion of W. E. B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and the Harlem Renaissance (also known as the New Negro Renaissance or New Negro movement), Morgan documents the increased impact of African American folk music on American commercial music, capturing the conflict, even in African American communities, around what Du Bois called "vulgar music" and spirituals and Zora Neale Hurston's work on the "vitality and artistic merits of African American vernacular expression" (pp. 18–9). Throughout the book, Morgan examines in depth the multiple adaptations of "Frankie and Johnny" as it becomes inculcated into the American consciousness.
Chapter 2 offers a detailed exploration of Huddie Ledbetter's life, musical expertise, and rise in popularity along with the strengths and flaws of his collaboration with John and Alan Lomax. Morgan thoughtfully tackles issues surrounding the Lomaxes' portrayal of Ledbetter and the problematic media representations of the gifted musician. The Lomaxes painted Led-better as secluded from contemporaneous musical influence, suggesting "folkloric purity" in his music and concealing his years of work as a musician prior to 1930, though John Lomax later provided "a more nuanced acknowledgement of [Ledbetter's] hybrid repertoire" (p. 46). Morgan chronicles Ledbetter's likely personal connection to "Frankie and Albert" and his innovations during performances, particularly Ledbetter's extensive use of narrative interludes that provided context to help the audience visually access the story. Morgan includes the text of Ledbetter's extended version of the song, which can benefit scholars who further explore his premise. Morgan also examines Ledbetter's changes to the song. In Ledbetter's version, Frankie is a cook, not a prostitute; Frankie and Albert are no longer racially ambiguous but are clearly described as African American; and Albert's mother is given a larger presence. Morgan closes the chapter by examining Ledbetter's continued performances and connections to the Popular Front, a political and social movement that, in part, aimed to reorient American folk music as by and for poor and working-class Americans. [End Page 337]
In chapters 3 and 4, Morgan's perceptive analysis turns to humorous characterizations of "Frankie and Johnny" in a Thomas Hart Benton mural and a John Huston play, subsequently published as a book, in which Huston portrays the protagonists as white even though he was knowledgeable of the African American roots of the folk song. Benton's Social History of the State of Missouri is a multi-panel mural celebrating facets of St. Louis and Kansas City urban life, with one panel showing a representation of "Frankie and Johnny." Morgan calls Benton's rendering of "Frankie and Johnny" "the most consciously comic scene" of the mural, absent the tragedy depicted in the song (p. 99). In part, Morgan effectively argues, this comic representation taps into emasculating images of African American males prevalent during the 1930s. Noting the caricaturistic expressions on Frankie's and Johnny's faces and Frankie's gun aimed at Johnny's rear end, Morgan references Benton's obsession with physical masculinity, his abhorrence of perceived effeminacy in the 1930s New York art scene, and his father's inability to rule their home. Benton's racial and gender politics notwithstanding, Morgan asserts: "The fact that Benton selected 'Frankie and Johnny' and placed the ballad on par with the esteemed literary creations of Mark...