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Frankie and Johnny: A Murderous Folk Music Standard

Updated on April 15, 2013

The Classic Folk Story of Frankie and Johnny

Frankie and Johnny has been covered and recorded for a hundred years. While the music for Frankie and Johnny was copyrighted to Hughie Cannon in 1904, there have been various claims regarding the authorship of the lyrics. Some claim that the song goes back to the 1820s. The story may be based on a true murder, or on one of a pair of women named Frankie who were wronged and sought revenge, or even include the details of a third nefarious lovers' spat in St. Louis, Missouri. You can find an exploration of all three of these sources at Bluegrass Messengers. You'll also find an enormous list of recorded bluegrass cover versions of Frankie and Johnny and a different version of the lyrics than the one I've posted here (apparently a later version, as it mentions the electric chair).

Here, you'll find clips and music videos of some of those versions. Hundreds of people, including such luminaries as Bill Bill Broonzy, Lena Horne, the Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, Tah Mahal, and Louis Armstrong.

Muisic Videos of Frankie and Johnny

I know the Cid Charisse video title doesn't say it, but she's dancing to a great big-band version of Frankie and Johnny. The Lindsay Lohan video includes both Frankie and Johnny and Red River Valley, a little two-for-one bonus for you.

Traditional Lyrics for Frankie and Johnny

Frankie and Johnny were lovers

O Lordy, how they could love

They swore to be true to each other

Just as true as the stars above

He was her man but he done her wrong

Frankie and Johnny went walking

Johnny had a brand new suit

Frankie paid a hundred dollars

Just to make her man look cute

He was her man but he done her wrong

Johnny said, "I've got to leave you, But I won't be very long

Don't you wait up for me, honey, Nor worry while I'm gone."

He was her man but he done her wrong

Frankie went down to the corner, Stopped in to buy her some beer

Says to the fat bartender, "Has my Johnny man been here?"

He was her man but he done her wrong

Well, I ain't going to tell you no story, Ain't going to tell you no lie

Johnny went by 'bout an hour ago, With a girl named Nellie Bly

He is your man but he's doing you wrong

Frankie went home in a hurry, She didn't go there for fun

She hurried home to get ahold, Of Johnny's shootin' gun

He was her men but he's doing her wrong

Frankie took a cab, at the corner, Says, driver step on this cab

She was just a desperate woman, Gettin' two-timed by her man

He was her man but he's doin' her wrong

Frankie got out at south Clark Street, Looked in a window, so high

Saw Johnny, man, a lovin' up, That high-brow Nellie Bly

He was her man but he done her wrong

Johnny saw Frankie a-comin', Out the back door he did scoot

But Frankie took aim with her pistol, And the gun went roota-toot-toot

He was her man but he done her wrong

O, roll me over so easy, Roll me over so slow

Roll me over easy boys, Cause my wounds they hurt me so

I was her man but I done her wrong

Bring out your long black coffin, Bring out your funeral clothes

Johnny's gone an' cashed his checks, To the graveyard, Johnny goes

He was her man but he done her wrong

Drive out your rubber tired carriage, Drive out your rubber tired hack

There's twelve men going to the graveyard, But eleven comin' back

He was her man but he done her wrong

The sheriff arrested poor Frankie, He took her to jail the same day

He locked her up in the dungeon cell, And he threw th key away

He was her man but he done her wrong

Preview Cover Versions of Frankie and Johnny

Here are some of the many, many different takes on this traditional blues song. There are literally hundreds of different versions available, so run a search for "Frankie and Johnny" to find even more!

Guitar Tabs for Frankie and Johnny - The Johnny Cash Cover Version

I've only included the first verse because the song has no chorus or bridge and all of the verses follow the same pattern. It's an incredibly adaptable song, and you can make up verses, adding as many or as few as you like to tell the story. Perhaps that's why it's been a folk music standard for so long.

Frankie and Johhny Movies

The original Elvis Presley movie from 1966 and 1991's verions with Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Nathan Lane.

Who Performs Your Favorite Version of Frankie and Johnny? - Which is your favorite movie?

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I once heard a great comic version of Frankie and Johnny that talks about Johnny taking Mae West for a walk, and ends with Frankie shooting him in a ummm... appropriate place. This was done by a female singer and was probably in the early forties. Does anyone know who it was that sang it?

    • BrandonSharp profile image

      BrandonSharp 6 years ago

      Nice lens. The only version of Frankie and Johnny that I have ever heard is by Sam Cooke. My Mom used to play it all the time.

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 6 years ago

      Louis Armstrong, by a mile, although I really enjoyed all the sngers.

    • Fox Music profile image

      Fox Music 7 years ago

      Nina Simone Performed the Tale of Frankie and Johnny in a Grand Fashion

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 8 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Frankie and Johnny was one of my favorites songs especially by The Kingston Trio. Lensrolling to The Brothers Four. Great work on this lens about a great song!

    • profile image

      grannysage 8 years ago

      My memories you stirred up here. I had to play the Chet Atkins version as my dad was a huge fan of his. I love the guitar chords too. I used to play that song on my guitar! I didn’t realize it had such a history. I learn so much reading other people’s lenses.

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 8 years ago from USA

      This is wonderful!

    • FriendsTreasure1 profile image

      TwoFriendsTreasures 8 years ago from S.E. Sussex County, Delaware

      Informative lens - 5 stars - Elvis is the only Frankie & Johnny I know.

    • mysticmama lm profile image

      Bambi Watson 9 years ago

      Very cool that you included the guitar chords...5*

    • Not-Pop profile image

      Not-Pop 9 years ago

      Thanks so much, to both of you. I though I'd included an Elvis video, so I fixed that oversight. Levi, I couldn't find a video of Dean Martin performing the song, but I did spend an hour watching Colgate Comedy Hour clips with him and Jerry Lewis, so thanks for turning me on to that source of fun. I may have to do a lens on the pair's performances on that show.

    • profile image

      anonymous 9 years ago

      dean martin did a version on the colgate comedy hour. there are so many versions its hard to find the one you want tohough

    • Spook LM profile image

      Spook LM 9 years ago

      Elvis but it's been a long time for me without following music. Great lens by the way.