In Defence of Charley Patton's "Frankie and Albert"

Cornerstones of American music: ballads relating to Omie Wise, the Rock Island Line and Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons. Added to this list must surely be the story of Frankie and Albert (variously titled “Frankie,” “Frankie and Johnny” and so on); a ballad that allegedly details the true events of the 1899 shooting of “Albert” (actually named Allen) by his older girlfriend Frankie in St Louis, after Frankie discovered him with a prostitute. Variously covered by artists such as Jimmy Rogers, Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, the tale has become a staple of the blues, folk and country traditions.  

Recorded at a Paramount recording session in December 1929, the version of “Frankie and Albert” committed to shellac by Charlie Patton is widely regarded as an inferior version of the song. The reason for this appears primarily to be Patton’s muddling of the lyrics that, at least superficially, creates a muddled narrative. I present the lyrics as Patton recorded them below: 

Well Frankie went down to Albert’s house, 

How late Albert been here? 

Albert sitting in some cheap gal’s lap, 

Buying some cheap gal beer 

Say, “he was my man, but he done me wrong.” 

Well Frankie, she called Albert, 

She called him some two, three times. 

Look down the road ‘bout a quarter block, 

You might’a seen little Albert flyin’ 

Say, “he was my man, but he done me wrong.” 

Well Frankie was a good old girl there, 

Everybody knows 

She would pay one half a hundred 

For the making of her man’s clothes 

Say, “he was my man, but he done me wrong.”  

Well, Frankie went down to the courthouse 

To hear little Albert tried. 

Oh Albert was convicted; Frankie hung her head and cried 

Say, “he was my man, but he done me wrong.”  

Tell you, do you remember last Sunday -  

Twenty-fifth day of May? 

You abused me and you cursed me 

Oh baby all that day 

Say, “he was my man, but he done me wrong.”  

There’s some won’t give you a nickel, 

And there’s some won’t give you a dime 

But I’m going to give you a smile instead 

For I know you was a man of mine 

Kill her man, go kill her man. 

Oh Frankie went to the cemetery, 

Fell down on her knees 

“Oh Lord will you forgive me 

“And give my poor heart ease? 

Say, “he was my man, but you done me wrong.”  

Well Frankie’s mother come running, 

She come a-whooping, screaming and crying 

“Oh Lord, oh Lord, 

“My only son is dying 

“She killed her man, just to kill her man.” 

Presented this way, the difficulty with the narrative is easy to spot: it appears that Patton should have sung of Albert’s mother running to the cemetery, rather than Frankie’s - especially given the mother figure referring to Albert as “My only son.” Furthermore, there is some ambiguity over the cause of Albert’s arrest (presumably, it is a result of his wild ways: he was discovered by Frankie to be “Sitting in some cheap gal’s lap,” for example) and more pressingly the way in which Frankie brought about Albert’s death once his arrest and conviction had been completed is unclear.   

However, such issues should not be allowed to spoil what is otherwise a truly beautiful rendition of this quintessential American ballad. The narrative problems with Patton’s rendition can be easily fixed: if he mistakenly sang of Frankie’s mother rather than Albert’s, then so be it - we can regardlessly understand the narrative being conveyed.  

Furthermore, the song is an exemplar of the blues ballad: the guitar work, delicate and subtle, is subdued throughout; at least by Patton’s standards. This allows the lyrics to come to the fore, for the narrative to bathe in the full unadulterated attention of the audience. In this manner, the guitar work perfectly embodies the forlorn melancholy of the song, and the beauty of Patton’s key of E devices in the key of F# should not be overlooked: providing resonance and backing to the lyrics, rather than overshadowing or overcrowding the story. In this vein should be noted Patton’s transition from the B7 shape to the root chord in the concluding section of each verse. He employs a distinctive movement from the tonic, to the major seventh, and back to the tonic: a simple yet elegant device that devastatingly serves the forlorn nature of the track. Importantly, this is a conscious choice on Patton’s part. Moving to the A position, Patton employs the minor seventh more typical of the blues; thus, this delicate conclusory movement is a purposeful selection that serves the beautiful melancholy of Patton’s rendition of the tale, as well as illustrates Patton's genius musical sensibility. 

Most importantly in this defence of Patton’s rendition should be considered his lyrical intricacies, especially in reference to his descriptions of Frankie. While the versions of the song recorded by Mississippi John Hurt and most stridently Lead Belly are more lyrically complete and breath-taking in their narrative detail, the detached nature of Patton’s version should not be overlooked for its ability to move the listener. Perhaps it is the ancient sounding melody; perhaps it is the lethargic way in which Patton sings the words, and the carefully placed syllables just behind the beat - yet the two verses immediately following Albert’s conviction are astounding in their lyrical power. They appear to detail Frankie’s reflection on the reality of her situation after Albert’s arrest: it seems to be from Frankie’s perspective that the abuse and cursing was incurred on the twenty-fifth day of May. That is, it was Albert committing the abuse upon Frankie, who on this reading is simply reeling from the heartbreak of both losing her man to an arrest and conviction, and a striking realisation of his unfaithfulness as well as the terrible treatment he inflicted upon her. In the following verse, Frankie appears to have decided against  paying Albert’s bail, or helping him in any way (“Some won’t give you a nickel/And some won’t give you a dime”), and gives him a “smile instead” - all while planning his demise (“Kill her man, go kill her man.”). The detached nature of Patton’s delivery here matches the plaintive, philosophical resignation of Frankie to murder the man she loved, or indeed loves. It is the deepest of blues that she expresses - to smile despite her profound heartbreak, in the midst of planning the death of her beloved - and Patton’s sensitive musicality and inimitable delivery of this rendition renders Frankie an achingly human tragic figure.  

This is furthermore true of Frankie’s (Albert’s) mother as she is presented in the final verse. In the final line, “She killed her man, just to kill her man” Patton presents the complex web of a grieving mother unable to understand the motivations of her son’s lover. As her child, of course Albert is blameless; thus the intense heartbreak, driven to murderous extremes, inflicted by him upon Frankie is impossible to fathom. Not only then are the heinous circumstances and terrible crime elucidated, yet the shocking consequences of Frankie’s actions are the final imprint left by Patton’s rendition: the listener leaves behind two two tragic figures blighted by the situations thrust upon them by the world they inhabit.  

For these reasons then the consensus of Patton’s recording as an inferior version of the tale should at once be thrown out. Check out his version of the song below.



Charley Patton, Frankie and Albert:

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