Frankie discovers her husband (Albert/Johnnie) involved with another woman. She shoots him. Depending on the version, she may be imprisoned or allowed to go free
Various theories have been proposed to explain the origin of this ballad. One theory connects it with the story of Frankie Silvers [Laws E13]. Another links it to the murder of Allen Britt ("Al Britt"= "Albert") by Frankie Baker in St. Louis, MO, on Oct. 15, 1899 (she was jealous of his relationship with Alice Pryor). (This murder was documented in the October 19, 1899 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.) Versions have shown a tendency to take on local color and even be connected with local events. - RBW, EC
Legman offers extensive documentation for the ballad in Randolph-Legman I. - EC
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. He bases this suggestion on having found traces of the ballad before 1899. -PJS
Belden catalogs scholars who date the origins of the song before 1899, listing:
* Thomas Beer (who offers a date before 1863, and cites a date in the 1840s for the original murder). Belden finds no authority for these claims
* Sandburg (claims widespread currency by 1888)
* Niles (claims it predates 1830, but without evidence)
* Orrick Johns (early 1890s)
* Tyrrel Williams (pre-Civil War), but Cohen says his evidence for this is "very weak"
* George Milburn ("long before 1899," using names other than Frankie and Albert)
Fuld, however, lists the first occurrence of the tune as 1904 (with documentation), and notes that the "Frankie and Johnny were lovers" version first appears in 1925.
The song "Leaving Home," recorded by Charlie Poole and others (and properly called "Frankie and Johnny"), is not actually a "Frankie and Johnny" text; it was written by the Leighton Brothers and Ren Shields and copyrighted in 1912. If it entered oral tradition, it is as a result of the Poole recording or some such similar source. It is, however, included under this entry because it is based on "Frankie and Johnnie" and often treated as a variant of that song.
Adding all this up, the verifiable facts appear to be as follows:
Whatever the earlier history, it seems certain that a canonical Frankie and Albert emerged from the Frankie Baker (1876-1952) and Al Britt (1882/3-1899) affair. The Leighton/Shields song supplied the names "Frankie and Johnny," which are now well-established. It is possible that "The Boll Weevil," or one of its musical relatives, contributed a tune at some point; not all "Frankie and Albert" texts are to this melody, but the usual "Frankie" tune sung today is close to "Boll Weevil." (Thanks to Paul J. Stamler for pointing this out.)
Frankie Baker, in her trial, claimed that Al Britt threatened her with a knife, and she shot him in self-defence. She was acquitted, but later left the area to try to find peace, and worked odd jobs for the rest of her life. She eventually sued Hollywood because of their treatments of the Frankie legend. - RBW