Researcher Rusty David, of St. Louis, suggests that while the details of the current ballad support the Frankie Baker/Allen Britt story, in fact the ballad predates this murder, and describes a killing that took place in the same red-light district of St. Louis sometime around 1865-70. When the Baker/Britt killing took place, according to David, the earlier ballad was modified to fit the new events.
Lonnie Donegan lived long enough (and stayed famous enough in the UK) to put future generations off uncovering the roots of his enduring success. But there it was, just waiting there in all its Skiffle glory, well hidden by TV specials and ill judged sweaters. Resurrected from its US slumber roughly 50 years after it’d passed into obscurity, Skiffle had the whiff of the proletariat in its improvised instruments and blues roots. So much so that John Lennon was all over it and what more endorsement does a working class movement need than the embrace of the middle class.
But back to Donegan.
It’s the 50s. Playing in newly opened Soho cafe basements Donegan was banging them out to an admiring audience of future rock and folk royalty. Or so the story goes. I couldn’t really care less about that. After hearing his version of Frankie and Johnny all I can think of is the unhinged, wall-bouncing madness that propels him through this song…and probably off a few of those cellar walls.
There are many versions of Frankie and Johnny; it’s been around long enough. Few though take the identification of the murderous Frankie to the edges of performance like Donegan does in his version. As the song builds so Donegan’s voice ratchets up, note by note, bar by bar to a barely comprehensible scream. It’s exhausting stuff and as exhilarating as any Carl Craig build. Yet unlike the glorious structural dance music that would follow 30 odd years later, there was no release, no wind down, no mix point; only the end of the song and death.
Our friends at Mennequin Records passed us this video for the fully-endorsed-on-these-candy-coloured-pages Sixth June. A pitch perfect vision of their effortless synthwave which, at points, deadpans a DIY version of the Umbrellas of Chebourg. Their EP from earlier this year is still available to buy here.