An Image that was Made for the Murderers

An Image that was Made for the Murderers: Retribution and Critical Revenge for Sterling A. Brown’s “Frankie and Johnny”

 

Sterling Brown’s poem “Frankie and Johnny” begins with an introduction that, to its contemporary readers, and potentially many modern ones, is unnecessary.  The epigraph that heads the poem, pulled from a popular song of the same name, reads:

Oh Frankie and Johnny were lovers

 oh lordy how they did love!

It is ascribed to the unquestionable monolith of historical source: “OLD BALLAD. ” While the song that the poem references remains well known today, it was certainly instantly recognizable in 1932, the year Brown published his book Southern Road – the collection in which it appears.  It would flash up as the title number in a Mae West film the following year, and then again in another film in 1936.  After it’s publication in 1904 by the ill-fated ragtime composer Hughie Cannon, it had been recorded by dozens of artists – including Leadbelly, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmie Rodgers and Roscoe Holcomb – and it was already the subject of two plays, by John Huston and Jack Kirkland.

The song’s actual origin, however, like most melodies with long and tangled blues, old time, ragtime, and folk ballad histories, is “unknown.”   While the song may have been a familiar feature in early 1930s pop culture, its appearance as the root of a poem in Southern Road is striking.  It appears suddenly, and doesn’t seem to belong in a book about resurrecting and reimagining the poetics of southern black folklore.  While much of the book skillfully eviscerates racist tropes and social realities, the poems usually operate in a sphere of tenderness, quietness, and elevating respect for the characters they employ.  But “Frankie and Johnny” is, comparatively, sinister, menacing, and rife with cold, blunt cruelty.  Everything Sterling Brown does in his poem is likewise remarkably strange.  The complete text is as follows:

Frankie was a halfwit, Johnny was a nigger,
Frankie liked to pain poor creatures as a little ‘un,
Kept a crazy love of torment when she got bigger,
Johnny had to slave it and never had much fun.
Frankie liked to pull wings off of living butterflies,
Frankie liked to cut long angleworms in half,
Frankie liked to whip curs and listen to their drawn out cries,
Frankie liked to shy stones at the brindle calf.

Frankie took her pappy’s lunch week-days to the sawmill,
Her pappy, red-faced cracker, with a cracker’s thirst,
Beat her skinny body and reviled the hateful imbecile,
She screamed at every blow he struck, but tittered when he curst.

Frankie had to cut through Johnny’s field of sugar corn
Used to wave at Johnny, who didn’t ‘pay no min’
Had had to work like fifty from the day that he was born,
And wan’t no cracker hussy gonna put his work behind—.’

But everyday Frankie swung along the cornfield lane,
And one day Johnny helped her partly through the wood,
Once he had dropped his plow lines, he dropped them many times again—
Though his mother didn’t know it, else she’d have whipped him good.

Frankie and Johnny were lovers; oh Lordy how they did love!
But one day Frankie’s pappy by a big log laid him low,
To find out what his crazy Frankie had been speaking of;
He found that what his gal had muttered was exactly so.

Frankie, she was spindly limbed with corn silk on her crazy head,
Johnny was a nigger, who never had much fun—
They swung up Johnny on a tree, and filled his swinging hide with lead,
And Frankie yowled hilariously when the thing was done.

 

 

***

In order to see the strangeness of Brown’s adaptation, we first have to consider the history of the “OLD BALLAD” that he’s referring to.  Though its origins are debated, some trace the melody and story of the ballad to before the civil war.  As old timey historiography works, if somebody has traced it there, it’s probably a lot older than that.  Mississippi John Hurt is often cited as author, but while his rendition is famous and influential, the credit of originator is falsely attributed.   A 1930 anthology, Frankie and Johnny, which includes the play by John Huston, features fourteen different credited versions of lyrics from the turn of the century through the 1920s.  The names of the key players rotate – from Frankie and Johnny, to Frankie and Albert to Amy and Albert, and details drop in, fade away and reappear like extra aces in the crooked shuffling deck in a brothel’s card room.  But the structure of the story – the premise, conflict, and tragic resolution – remains consistent.

Frankie, at times characterized as a fast, loose, but generally goodhearted woman, loves her man, Johnny, a notorious, but inexpert gambler.  They go out walking together on evenings, and Frankie is terribly proud of her fine man, who she would do much of anything for.  Her devotion extends to the purchase of a fancy white suit valued at ten, one hundred, or even ten thousand dollars.  The repetition of the line “He was her man . . .” at the beginning of these ballads, paired with the focus on Frankie as the one doing everything – the loving, the buying, the feeling – ought to make the reader or listener immediately feel rather uneasy.   Repeating that this Johnny “Was her man” and that they “were lovers” in the past tense, even in the first stanza, before any wrongdoing occurs, is haunting foreshadowing.   The elements of genre, too, alert us to the fact that a tragedy will likely befall the lovers before many choruses roll out.   After being stood up one evening, Frankie arrives at the local barroom alone, inquiring after the whereabouts of her fellow and his dashing new suit.  She is informed by a disastrously honest barkeep that, alas, Johnny recently left the bar with a flashy young woman – Nellie Bly, Alice Pry, or some other spry-sounding variation.  Bereft at this betrayal, Frankie rushes to discover the lying, illicit lovers, and then shoots Johnny dead.  Led to this tragic, but irrefutable conclusion by the inconsolable forces of her love-grief, Frankie is racked with sorrow instead of satisfied with vengeance, and bemoans her destructive role in the ill-fated affair.

The narrating chorus then chimes in with its repetitive refrain: “He was her man, but he done her wrong,” and “She shot him dead, for doin’ her wrong.”   While her actions may be extreme, Frankie is never characterized as acting without motive.  Johnny’s deplorable conduct is never in question, nor is the fact that she has killed him because he has done her wrong.  Her incentive to murder is illustrated clearly.  In a fast wild time, what good woman might not do the same, or even imagine doing so?  The ballads lead us to ponder this conundrum in a surprisingly compassionate take on the female murderer.   In that manner, the blues or ballad “Frankie and Johnny” is already an atypical, intriguing fount of verbal folk play.

 

 

***

 

 

In his essay “Sterling A. Brown and the Afro-American Folk Tradition,” Charles H. Rowell gives a quick rundown of the Brown’s poem.  He spends one paragraph, without using any block quotes, explaining how it’s a simple story in which:

sadistic Frankie seduces Johnny, a black plowman, to make love to her.  To torment her racist father . . . Frankie spoke to him about her affair with the black plowman.  When her ‘pappy’ discovers the truth, the inevitable occurs: Johnny is lynched.  The lynching brings pleasure to the sadistic Frankie.                (Rowell 55)

On the surface, Rowell’s reading is correct – that’s what appears to happen in the poem.  But this interpretation is characteristic of the dismissive attitude that critics have held toward “Frankie and Johnny” over several decades of scholarship[1].

Although many critics have labored to resurrect Brown’s poetry from the forgotten annals of “lesser” Harlem Renaissance works, “Frankie and Johnny” continues to languish in a hazy, liminal space.  In an early, influential, and still often cited review of Southern Road, critic and poet Louis Untermeyer praised the book’s language and understated poetics, that “vibrate[s] with less obvious glow.”  While he appreciated the subtlety with which Brown “suffused” his words with “deep suffering and high laughter”[2] and reveled in the expert application of prosody, Untermeyer simply didn’t like “Frankie and Johnny.”  He suggests that, due to its roots in the old ballad tradition, it should simply be left alone.  Such criticism seems bizarre when applied to a book that sought to reinvent and explore the possibilities of folk songs, and perhaps Untermeyer’s quick dismissal affected the attitude of future critics.  They seem to deal with the poem only as a side note with a straightforward story, or ignore it entirely.  I believe the poem merits a much closer look, and that the absence of more substantial criticism reveals the painful, uncomfortable, and gnarled complexities that make it so hard to actually write about.

 

***

 

Brown developed and created Southern Road as he wandered into the rural corners, backwoods byways and farmhouse kitchens of the American south, talking to people, listening to stories and songs, and collecting traces of a folkloric past to reconsider in the modern moment.  The book follows Brown from the present, into the past, and back again, leaning on the boundaries of history and myth.   Questioning the role, origin and production of well-known folk figures, tuning the lenses that perceive the figures, and adjusting the manner of presentation, Brown re-imagines the role of the past in the present consciousness.  He reclaims tokens whose use had, and still has not, been exhausted.

Due to Brown’s methodologies and inspirations, a knowing epigraph followed by the source “OLD BALLAD” might rightly be inscribed at the beginning of over half the poems in Southern Road. If not, they might likewise be attended by a note that they were based on “tales heard in Sarah’s barn” or “story passed down through old Paul’s family since 1750.”  And yet only “Frankie and Johnny” bears this heading.  Why?  What sense can we make of this inscription?  It certainly distinguishes “Frankie and Johnny” from the surrounding verses, and imbues the poem with some of its strangeness. What does it mean to inscribe this poem with that modifier, and how does changing that song, so forcefully named, into a written, anthologized poem, make its meaning different?   The epigraph frames the connection of this song’s historic precedence to its modern conception, and signals to the reader that something surprising, difficult, and dark is about to happen.

Brown’s collection marked a moment that, according to Alain Locke, hailed “a new era in Negro poetry, for such is the deeper significance of the volume” (Locke 4).  His ability to “mine the rich veins of Negro folklore” and illustrate what he found there as “almost boundless possibilities for exploring the human condition” (Locke 5) was a revelation not just for African-American poets or the modernist project, but for any incorporation and interpretation of folkloric traditions, song, literature and art.   James Weldon Johnson, in the introduction to the first edition, wrote that Brown “has done more than mere transcription of folk poetry . . . he has deepened its meanings and multiplied its implications” (Johnson).   Much of the criticism to follow, for several decades, reminds the reader again and again of Brown’s “ability” to document folkloric tradition as historical record, and his talent for accurately refining and displaying folk sensibilities, but stops short of pushing on the boundaries of his poetics.

Critics extol Brown for considering, elevating and venerating folk speech patterns and ballad traditions simply by writing the stories down as verse, and rightly so.  Infusing poetry with the voices of poor, rural black folks, and writing those voices with vitality and authenticity, was a tricky, rebellious act.   Many of Brown’s black poet contemporaries had rejected the use of vernacular as a disloyal carrier of diseased ideology, theorizing that the repetition of certain emphases, slangs, and dropped letters bore the sickly traces of minstrelsy and survivalist race performance.   Thus, Brown’s use of language and tradition was bold – even revolutionary.

But while it is difficult to overstate the significance of Brown’s reimagining of the possibilities for black vernacular, the poems don’t stop there.  And his method, of hearing stories and songs and tales and then writing them down as poems, is an essential piece of action.  What happens to a song, flattened out of the air and pressed onto pale paper in thin lines?  What changes, and what does this change allow the words in Brown’s poetry to really do?   It certainly doesn’t deactivate his language, nor does the rhythm at the heart of the original material lose footing, effect, or presence.

Joanne Gabbins describes the movement of Southern Road as a journey “from innocence to experience, naïveté to wisdom” (Gabbins).  “Frankie and Johnny” marks a critical juncture in this evolution.  Appearing in the first section of Southern Road, “Road so Rocky,” “Frankie and Johnny” is preceded by the likewise ill-fated Johnny Thomas and followed by the free-wheeling, tragic buckdancer glory of Sam Smiley, two well-versed characters from black folk tradition.  A lot of the poems in this section rely on rhythm as their principal form, with the stanzaic and rhyme structures following the patterns of time signatures and breaths.  Thus, a lot of the poems are blues tunes or structured like blues tunes – in form, content, and narrative structure.

The titular poem, “Southern Road,” is exemplary in its stoic, simultaneous re-creation and re-imagining of rhythm with punctuation and onomatopoeia.  Dashes, semi-colons, line breaks and “hunh”s all work to reproduce rhythm in the reading of a silent poem, and therefore recreate an essential bodily experience of interpretation.    In another of the Slim Greer poems, Slim, attempting to pass and cavorting romantically with a white woman, is suddenly outed when his lover hears him “agitatin’ the ivories” from the next room.  The importance of musicality to group and individual identity is undeniable and robust, even when utilized primarily as the source of slightly wicked humor.

The reliance on rhythm jarringly halts at “Frankie and Johnny.” if you listen to any early 20th century, 1920s or 30s recording of “Frankie and Johnny” the song, you’ll find that it’s an easily recognizable 4/4 twelve bar blues. But whereas many of Brown’s poems specifically and intentionally seek to recreate blue patterns and effects by messing with language, space, and punctuation – see, for instance, “Stagolee” – and retain the blues form, Frankie and Johnny most pointedly does not.  All the possible opening lines of the ballad, like “Frankie and Johnny were lovers” or “Frankie was a good girl” or “Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts” are composed of dotted eighth notes that lilt up the scale and then leap off to land on two solid quarters at the base of the chord.  So when Brown’s poem begins, with the familiar title, the explanatory epigraph, the accreditation of the monumental “OLD BALLAD,” and the expected starting phrase that includes the names “Frankie” and “Johnny,” the refusal of the line to cooperate is striking, frustrating, and destabilizing:

 

Frankie was a halfwit, Johnny was a nigger.

 

Everything about the line is jarring.  The rhythm is all wrong – there are twelve spoken syllables, divided into two clauses, which is obtuse and impossible to contour into expected singing form.  The awkward beat content combines with the trochaic force of the first line to push the reader aggressively forward and antagonize the experience of reading.   The beats squabble with their confines and force the syllables of each word to fall with an eerie, resounding, sing-song approach. It places far too much weight and space on every consonant, and the rhythm is backwards and brutal.

The epigraph, unnecessary for introduction or recognition, instead does the work of reminding the reader, without question, that this is how the song usually goes.  It thus points to the central element of rhythmic discomfort.   As, in the ballad, the introduction of Frankie and Johnny as lovers in the past tense casts an ill portend over their possibilities at the end of the song, the use of the first line as an epigraph functions the same way.  It indicates that a familiar story is about to be told, and that it’s definitely not going to turn out well.

Frankie and Johnny are usually primarily identified by the fact that they love each other, and the rest of their identity is allowed to unfold quietly in the shadows behind that love.  Usually, when we hear their names, their traits are not immediately enumerated to establish their categorical import.  Their fullness exists in the absence of limiting description, and we expect to learn about their characters as they act.  But Brown immediately calls the lovers names that devour their actual identities.  From the moment we meet Frankie and Johnny, we see their proper names overpowered and erased by uncompromising, violent slurs.  Brown’s power as a poet to restate their identities echoes the social structures that replace first names with less-than human types.  Brown’s first line slashes through the hamstrings of the status, relationship and plot of Frankie and Johnny the lovers, and lets them fall to the bottom of the social ladder among the shambles of their former rhythm and potential selves.

 

***

 

Vernacular is forthright and essential in much of Southern Road.  Yet as the poem continues, dialect is far from overstated.  In the first stanza:

Frankie was a halfwit, Johnny was a nigger,
Frankie liked to pain poor creatures as a little ‘un,
Kept a crazy love of torment when she got bigger,
Johnny had to slave it and never had much fun.

Grammar and spelling are almost entirely standard, except for the rather awkward insertion of “little ‘un,” the low key, informal style of speech that drops a subject in line three, and then uses slang like “crazy love” and “had to slave it.”  This stanza sets up the structure for describing the two that will follow through the rest of the poem:  Frankie’s psychotic desires are detailed, and Johnny is included briefly as a sidelong afterthought.  The slurs for Frankie and Johnny place them in time somewhere in the era of reconstruction.  The use of “slave it” to describe Johnny’s work and life vividly ties his current situation and limitations to the moment of history directly preceding him.  Of course, a slave would never use the phrase “slave it,” because it would be an unnecessarily stated redundancy.  But when “slave it” becomes figurative language, it highlights the irony of similarity of experience between Johnny’s life as a black sharecropper and the duties and necessities that were likely lived by his nearest older generations.  Johnny is tied to and relentlessly confined by the historical trope of his nearest ancestors and oppressed social class, and thus we are reminded, as a reader, to see the poem as a crystallization of the shifting, straining, piecemeal social structures that continually invented gender and race in the reconstruction south.

 

***

 

In addition to is his curt analysis of the events of the poem in his previously mentioned essay, Rowell discusses Brown’s negotiation of the oppositional “we’re just like white folks!” and “noble negro primitivism” stereotypes for classifying black aesthetics.  He outlines how Brown’s study of other modernist poets’ “democratic approach” toward the realistic poetry of everyday people led to his status as “an insider to the multifarious traditions and verbal art forms indigenous to black folk” and how then he could be “an instrument for their myriad voices” (Rowell 336).   Then, Rowell goes on to remark that Brown’s “transformation of the story of the traditional ballad is an achievement which points toward one of the major sources of racism – sexual fear” (348). Rowell’s simplistic rendering of the poem is also marked by his conclusion, that “sexual” fear” is a “source” of racism, as opposed to a tool, which actively invents and creates racial myths for the purpose of delineating social power.  Perhaps I’m mischaracterizing Rowell’s intended meaning of “source,” but I’d still like to clarify – white people didn’t hate black men and want to murder them with mob violence because they were under the mistaken impression that black men were likely to rape white women.  The idea of a monstrous black man that rapes white women was invented after the civil war for the specific purpose of manufacturing social distinctions and regulations in a shifting economic moment.   Racial mixing was suddenly more of a possible common occurrence, and poor whites and poor blacks largely outnumbered a rich white hierarchy that had lately lost a great deal of stability and power.  With the end of slavery, racial mixing could threaten hereditary white, male, property ownership like it never had before.[3]  “Sexual fear” was constructed by extending white female purity to apply to poor white women as well as rich ones, and make this “purity” the symbol of white male economic power.

Besides this glaring misinterpretation of functional racist and misogynist ideology, or perhaps due to it, Rowell simplifies Frankie.  In his reading, she is simply “sadistic,” and she purposefully tells her father about her relationship with Johnny.  He ignores the fact that she is, likewise, a brutalized victim.  She’s called a “halfwit,” and whether or not she is supposed to be construed as actually having an intellectual disability, or as simply being labeled with disdain by an oppressive patriarchal force with aims to disarm her credibility, the application of this moniker is an act of violence.  Also, the poem explicitly and bluntly states that her drunken father beats her. The casual manner in which Brown provides this information– “Beat her skinny body” – without advent, drama, or pronouns, suggests that this action is repeated regularly and often, and without ceremony or recourse.

Rowell goes on to point out that Brown performs a “transformation” on the “traditional ballad,” but he fails to remark on how he distinguishes the “ballad” form from the blues form, and states that “in the original ballad, both lovers are black” and that Frankie kills the philandering Johnny “without remorse,” from a “thirst for revenge.”  That’s absolutely not true. The Frankie of the ballad is almost always driven to her murder out of torment and heartbreak, and often goes to her death afterwards proclaiming great sorrow for her act of killing her unfaithful lover.  Likewise, the ballad was both a white song and a black song, depending on circumstance, that’s just as much a part of the “blues” tradition as it is the “ballad” tradition, whatever that distinction even means without the social construction of race surrounding it.

 

***

 

The murder ballad tradition of the American south and Appalachia is a descendant of popular folk songs and broadsides of the British Isles, and has been used as an indicator of changing gender mores, reflections of domestic roles and intimate unrest, and the tensions of shifting patriarchal power in often economically disenfranchised families (Baptist 95).   Ballads could be warnings to men that limited the amount of intimate violence that was appropriate to maintain social order, but not delegitimize male authority over their female family members.   In the Jim Crow south, stories of wife and lover murder “had a strong grip on nineteenth century male imaginations,” that reflected the tensions of acceptable male violence in a world where they were “supposed” to be granted mastery, but were increasingly excluded from the most important pillar of that mastery – land ownership.  Thus, songs in which the mad, deliberate, guilty, or confusingly mundane male ruthlessly shoots, drowns, stabs, strangles and disposes of his wife or lover both serve to help men cope with their slipping grip on power and test their boundaries.

Edward E. Baptist argues that these songs became far more popular than those that were the center of the early murder ballad tradition – tales that provided “fearsome portraits of women who killed their husbands” (95).  But if new murder ballads were written with men as the perpetrators, the idea of the monstrous female murderer most certainly did not disappear.   Its roots are deep and expansive.    Even books from the 1970s on “female crime” have categories for metaphorical witches and mythologically rooted monstrosities and refer to the “female offender” as if she were a bizarre, alien, untenable, unpredictable, fantastically endowed beast creature[4], not unlike the shallow readings of Brown’s Frankie that critics like Rowell provide.

Therefore, Brown’s “halfwit” description of Frankie is actually an ironic humanization.  If we read Brown’s poem more carefully, we can see that she has been decreed as less than human by her social masters – not by the poet.  They label her as a “halfwit,” and divorce her from human subjectivity and complexity.  We can then begin to read Frankie with the same sympathy that we apply to Johnny – and this dramatically changes the thrust of the poem.

Murder ballads, as we know them, have their roots across the Atlantic and several centuries.  In early modern England, wives who murdered, killed, or used violence against their husbands were accused and convicted not of violent crimes, but of petty treason – a crime of insubordination that threatened social hierarchy[5].  Male property owners and other men were much more likely to commit violent acts against their wives than female family members and domestic servants were to attack, kill or poison their “masters.” But popular ballads, broadsides and circulated pamphlets focused heavily on the imaginary crimes of disruptive women and servants far more than they strove to illustrate top-down violence.  However, “Common law . . .  did not define these kinds of violence as criminal, and popular culture rarely represented actual instances of domestic violence that had no clear legal status” (41).  This knowledge alters the fabric and texture of the story tradition that surrounds domestic violence and intimate retribution for social transgressions.  Texts in 15th and 16th and 17th century England that accused women of murder and assault conflate sexual desire, speech, and any act of establishing subjectivity as evidence or even proof of evil.  As Baptist writes, “one account of a wife’s reaction to marital rape . . . shoes how a wife’s subjectivity is constructed as violent, as a choice of her own life over her husband’s life”(39).  That idea became rooted, knotted, and poisonously fixed in the folklore that extended into the American tradition.

The use of spectacle based punishment for this insubordination was commonplace, but the gendered divergence is troubling: “men convicted of petty treason were drawn to the place of execution on a hurdle and then were hanged.  This punishment emphasized the shameful display of the disciplined body, but was not as heinous as the notorious executions for high treason, which involved mutilation, disembowelment, and decapitation.  Women convicted of petty treason, however, were sentenced to the same punishment as those convicted of high treason: They were burned at the stake”(25).   Remembering this centuries old pattern of violence towards murderous women and the carefully patterned training of the public to witness their crimes in a particular way should change how we think about murder ballads, and how we think about female murderers in American poetry.

Although ballads with violent male lovers struck chords with the poor white south in the latter half of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, they still relied on the construction of the female as passive property.  The legal realities of the American south continued to invest little care in domestic violence against women, and female murderers continued to be subjects of public fascination.  They were insubordinate monsters.  “Frankie and Johnny” the song, with its pathetic portrayal of Frankie, is a surprising fluke in the tradition.  So when Brown takes it and turns Frankie into the more easily expected character of sadistic female monster, he’s making a point to people who know how the story usually goes.

 

***

 

While it’s origin is still officially “unknown,” the most reasonable hypothesis is that “Frankie and Johnny” is an old song – definitely pre-civil war, perhaps older – that has been reproduced, with similar melody, similar characters and similar, though at times divergent plot lines, in countless incarnations.  Variations of “Frankie and Johnny” tumbled out of song bag and scrap collections of Appalachian women, alongside piles of warnings to fair young maids, revenge fantasies, and delicate, piano-based allegories of daisy flowers and tender secrets.  It exists within an American tradition that melded the folklore of Elizabethan England, Rappahannock, Lumbee, and Cherokee songs with West African rhythms and instrumentation.  At least by the earliest years of the twentieth century, the story and tune were a familiar melody among black blues singers of the south and southeast United States.[6] The story of the song is a history in the products of miscegenation – the physical and ephemeral evidence of the infernal mixing of continents, people, and stories.

Yet if you simply read the lyrics of several versions of a Frankie and Johnny song, the race of the characters aren’t clearly identified.  Race would, however, be invoked by the singer in the moment of performance, or if the substituted details of a certain variation are based on particular local circumstances.  A large part of Brown’s project in Southern Road was to utilize black dialect as expressive language – to powerfully suggest the fullness of place and identity of the speaker through the use of voice.  But his work is also even more complex, thoughtful, and provocative than is properly given credit.   Brown was working with the entire history of the ballad tradition and oppressive social constructions in clear, obvious mind as he created this poem.  And that should change how we consider it critically.

 

***

 

Brown makes Frankie a sadist as soon as he possibly can.  Calling her a “halfwit” is a shocking introduction that diagnoses her as disorderly and unfit, and then immediately dismisses her relevance.  Then, we immediately learn that she liked to “pain poor creatures as a little ‘un.”  The musicality of the alliteration is macabre – it introduces a hint of the melody and playful attitude of the song – but does so as it describes a small child experiencing joy while hurting animals – a pretty horrifying example of a person’s character.   It also serves to emphasize the pathos of the creatures, who are given a modifier to illicit sympathy.  She doesn’t “hurt” them, she “pains” them – the full thrust of the action is based on the experience of the creatures.  Whatever Frankie does is not as important as the fact that it elicits pain in something else, a “poor creature.”

Johnny’s obligation to work all the time and inability to have fun ought to, for balance, be paired with Frankie’s reasonable ability to engage with her world socially and spiritually.  But Brown makes a very different choice.  While Frankie doesn’t have to “slave it,” she can only engage in her world by tormenting its weakest inhabitants. Brown continues, giving further detail on the habits of Frankie the monstrous halfwit:
Frankie liked to pull wings off of living butterflies,

Frankie liked to cut long angleworms in half,
Frankie liked to whip curs and listen to their drawn out cries,
Frankie liked to shy stones at the brindle calf.

 

The repetition of the beginning of “Frankie liked to” causes more imbalance in the rhythmic and narrative harmony of the poem (There should be a line about Johnny), and emphasize the tiresome recital of these careful acts of brutality.  Frankie’s habits evoke a carnival of cruelty and festival of violence with taunting consonants.   The rhythmic imbalance of each line places weight on the uncomfortable spondee at the center: “Whip curs” “Shy stones” “cut long” and “pull wings” that interrupts the trochaic flow of the line and accentuates the physicality of the parade of horrors.

The violence is cartoonish as much as it is gruesome.  The haunting precision and implied privacy of these crimes demonstrate Frankie enacting power over helpless things in extraordinarily thoughtful ways.  She enacts torture with a commitment to detail, and waits to listen to the reactions, but does it all in out of the way places, where no one else is watching, or would care.  Thus Brown establishes Frankie’s actions as an attempt to establish her own subjectivity, the rendering of which is fundamentally a “violent act,” via the only way possible in her social confines – torturing butterflies and baby cows.  The exaggeration of these acts can’t only be to “comment on the cruelty of the post war rural south” as Rowell argues, but to demonstrate how the construction of one powerless group is dependent on the constructed abuse of another.  We can quite reasonably, then, connect our understanding of the poem to Martha Hodes’ argument, that  “the construction of white female purity is crucial to the political disempowerment of black people” (Hodes 207).  “Frankie and Johnny” as a poem that comments not on basic, terrible “cruelty”, but as a specific indictment of the social tactics invented to prevent miscegenation that would disrupt white male property lineage.

Brown addresses the significance of heredity in possible mixed race relations in his inclusion and characterization of Frankie’s father:

Frankie took her pappy’s lunch week-days to the sawmill,

Her pappy, red-faced cracker, with a cracker’s thirst,

Beat her skinny body and reviled the hateful imbecile,
She screamed at every blow he struck, but tittered when he curst.

A sputtering, drunken degenerate, his place of work classifies her “pappy” as a poor worker who must work for others in addition to on his own land, and gives evidence for his rage being based on the personal humiliation of demasculation.  His identity as a “cracker” is expounded by explaining his actions in terms of his categorical identity – a “cracker’s thirst” is, in Brown’s poem, a recognizable signifier for the particular kind of “thirst” that a “cracker” would have, adding a layer to the outline of social dynamics in the rural south.  He takes out his rage on the body of his daughter, which is vulnerable and pitiable, with enough force that she actually “screams.”  But Frankie’s spirit is not entirely crushed – she “tittered when he curst,” indicating not the a mad, psychotic temperament that most critics read, but a persistent defiance in the face of relentless abuse, that would then be read by her father and others as its own type of insanity and monstrousness, because it reflects her subjectivity.

The poem continues, following Frankie out into the world, as she travels to deliver lunch to her violent father:

Frankie had to cut through Johnny’s field of sugar corn

Used to wave at Johnny, who didn’t ‘pay no min’
Had had to work like fifty from the day that he was born,
And wan’t no cracker hussy gonna put his work behind—.’

Though we’ve learned more about Frankie in the preceding stanzas and Johnny has continued to lavish, barely named and silent, we only see the macabre cavalcade of Frankie’s actions as perceived and characterized by an outside voice.  Here, the italics and change of dialect let us enter Johnny’s head.  Although it’s brief, Johnny’s thoughts are evocative and clear.  His iteration of “had had to work like fifty from the day that he was born . . .” and the dashes at the end of the following line suggest that this is a refrain that often populates Johnny’s thoughts.  We see his mind working and comprehend that he has a personal system of rationale and coping mechanisms for navigating his social position, and that his personal thought system has a rich past that stretches out behind him and an imagination that stretches out before him. His use of “cracker hussy” to describe Frankie also elucidates Johnny’s perspective of categorical identity – each character has a trope of place holder identity with which to qualify every other character that they must negotiate with in order to survive or maintain their social status, and this requires Johnny to label Frankie as a “cracker hussy.”  It adds to the careful tapestry of social pacts and delicate concessions and labels that this poem explicates, the neat interchange of planned social intercourse.

Frankie’s “wave” at Johnny is what inspires other critics to accuse Frankie of the familiar

tale of willful seduction, as does the following line in the next stanza:

But everyday Frankie swung along the cornfield lane,
And one day Johnny helped her partly through the wood,
Once he had dropped his plow lines, he dropped them many times again—
Though his mother didn’t know it, else she’d have whipped him good.

Without a well-versed history of misogyny and sexual racism implicit in the mind of any American reader, to perceive Frankie’s “wave” and her swinging along the lane as irresistible, scheming feminine wickedness would be an insane stretch.  But this is a familiar story.  As Martha Hodes writes, “as the history of sex between black men and white women reaches the last decades of the nineteenth century, the stories become a series of false accusations of rape followed by certain, violent death for the man” (Hodes 176), in which sexual congress between these groups became an act of social treason.  White female purity became a holding place for male property rights and symbolic masculinity, and it now extended to poor white women as well as rich ones.  “White apologists relentlessly named the rape of white women as the reason for murdering black men, and fully intended the lynching of black men to sustain an atmosphere of terrorism that was in turn intended to maintain the racial hierarchy that emancipation and Reconstruction had begun to destroy” (Hodes 177).

While sexual violence and rapes most definitely occurred, this story was usually used as a fabricated myth that was and continues to be harmful to both men and women.  White men had been raping black women for centuries, and had constructed the bestial nature and “unnatural” sexual appetites of black women as a rationale.  Conversely, black men were now characterized as inhuman “brutes,” and white women as the tokens of white male property rights.  While at times white women were active participants in the accusations, they were likewise often forced to comply with a constructed tale – if a white woman refused to admit to victimhood, she would likewise become the victim of violence at hands of white patriarchs[7].  She might be prevented from telling her story at all, even if she was willing to comply with the false tale.  Or, in another common scenario, her male family members would simply claim that she was “feeble-minded” and didn’t know what she was doing in a consensual sexual act, therefore absolving her of wrong-doing and simultaneously accusing and convicting a black man of rape.[8]

 

Ida Abercrombie and Elvira Corder were both young white women who, in the 1890s, engaged in sexual relationships with black men who worked near their families’ homes.  Although both had been previously characterized as intelligent, able people, after their liaisons were discovered, their ages were drastically reduced and their minds and subjectivity were disassembled.  They were pure, innocent, idiot creatures – “halfwits.”  A report of the naïve, weak, helpless Ida Abercrombie is combined with a physical description of her, including a “wreath of golden hair,” to emphasize her angelic, pitiable image.  It’s hard to read Brown’s “Frankie and Johnny” after reading those reports, and see Frankie as simply a “half-wit,” who was “spindly limbed with corn-silk on her crazy head” and not see a much sharper commentary on the tactics of rationalizing lynch mobs than other critics give credit for.

 

 

Brown acknowledges the next step of the relationship between the doomed figures with the sardonic employment of the first line of the original ballad:
Frankie and Johnny were lovers; oh Lordy how they did love!
But one day Frankie’s pappy by a big log laid him low,
To find out what his crazy Frankie had been speaking of;
He found that what his gal had muttered was exactly so.

Frankie, she was spindly limbed with corn silk on her crazy head,
Johnny was a nigger, who never had much fun—
They swung up Johnny on a tree, and filled his swinging hide with lead,
And Frankie yowled hilariously when the thing was done.

 

If the line usually operates as a tragic portend of murder and violence in the near future, here, it’s an understatement exercised like a pointed barb.  “Oh lordy how they did love!” indeed.

In the final line of the poem, most critics see the violent murder of Johnny with Frankie looking on as a sadistic voyeur, rejoicing in the bloody end of her lover.  But considering Brown’s characterization of Frankie not as a serial sadist, but rather, a victim of a misogynist society that uses her as a prop, investing the lineage of capital power in the ownership of her body parts and her lack of autonomy, I don’t buy it.  And if Brown truly believed she was a “half-wit” – a rather rude description of a mentally ill or intellectually challenged individual, we would have less clear feelings about the potential sexual violence of Johnny.  But there’s nothing in the poem to support our reading of Johnny as a criminal.  He is, most definitely, both a  subject and a victim.  But, I would argue, so is Frankie.  It’s a simple argument, perhaps, but nobody seems to have considered it before.  And because of the intense, complicated series of histories that apply to this poem, it’s easy to see why.  This poem draws on so many strains of familiarity, tradition, folklore, and constructed memory, that even when it’s pointing out how we should reconsider why some things appear natural, we don’t even realize what else we should question.  We cannot read, in the opening line, that “Johnny was a nigger,” and immediately understand the irony and painful sarcasm of the statement, and then accept, without question, that “Frankie was a halfwit” who simply cut up worms and threw rocks at stray dogs and laughed at horrendous human violence for fun.  When we don’t question and apply pressure to that statement, we are both ignoring an oppressive and important history, and discounting Brown’s poetics.  It is important to question why that is so easy to do.

 

In the last line of the poem, Frankie “yowled hilariously to see that it was done.”  Everybody reads this line as if Frankie watched the murder of Johnny, and then laughed about it, enjoying the fact that she had just seduced him and sentenced him to torturous death on a whim.  But that reading simply doesn’t make sense.  “Hilariously” is an adverb – it implies that something else is watching – the narrator is the one who finds Frankie’s reaction “hilarious.”   There’s no way to read this, in the most basic, grammatical fashion, and decide that Frankie is the one who finds anything hilarious.

Everything depends on the fact that she “yowled,” and that she did it “hilariously.”  Frankie doesn’t laugh. Frankie’s pain is twisted, subverted and confused, just as the verbiage is confusing and impossible, and it is shocking, when you realize that it’s there.  Yowling is an animalistic, cathartic, primordial, visceral howl of pain and horror.   It is not a noise made lightly, and it could only be “hilarious” to a perverted, sadistic outsider, watching the reaction.  The fact that she makes this cry “when the thing was done” also places her in the confusing no-where space of perpetrator-accuser and mourner, while simultaneously being perceived as less than human.   The politics of spectatorship are at horrifying play, and Frankie, being witnessed, changes the image.  And it’s at this point in the poem that we can suddenly ask: who is the narrator?  Who is the speaker?  Who’s watching Frankie, and who has “seen the thing done”?

 

***

 

 

In their book on photographs of lynching in the American south in the 1920s, Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith describe the lenses and triangulation of looking at this specific kind of murder.  They describe the faces of the crowds of children and adults, women and men, who stand around the hanging body of a recently dead man.  What can be seen is beyond horrifying – the figurative abilities of language fail in articulating how horrifying it is.  But they also explain that the images are “shocking for what [they] lets us see as well as for the unseen [they] evoke, the terrors the darkness hides . . . illuminating the aftermath of a grotesque carnival . . . the photograph shows only a glimpse of a longer ordeal” (Apel and Smith 12).  The tight, fast, ruthless retelling of “Frankie and Johnny” operates in a similar way.  Apel and Smith write that when a photograph of a lynching was taken, and then circulated, that “The image [was] made for the murderers” (12).  Brown’s “Frankie and Johnny” is an image of the image made for the murderers, in which we can hopefully step further back, look at who’s watching, and change what we think that it means.

 

***

 

 

Frankie and Johnny as a poem is a miscegenation in multiple ways.  It mixes two traditions of violent, repressive ideology  – the centuries old, towering trope of the European-American sadistic murderess, and the purely American, post Civil War construction of the “big black brute” – the black man, described as a beast, whose sexuality is a terror and a threat to the domestic stability of white economic stability and personal safety.   But the poem takes a step farther, and illustrates where those two narratives merge – in the tradition of spectacular ritualistic execution.  When Brown buttresses these mythic tropes against one another, he draws connections that are as uncomfortable to the reader as the sexual relationship between his characters was to their white supremacist contemporaries.  These portraits are still painful, and they still burn to look at.   The alternative, however, is not to look.

In the present critical moment, it’s difficult to face and work with a real history of false rape accusations, while the current world refuses to listen to and routinely accuses victims of sexual assault of everything from fault to fabrication, and the only radical, reasonable response is to insist on believing women when they say things.  It’s likewise very difficult to argue for a parallel imagining of disrupters of social order when some of the people are white, and some of them are black.   I don’t want to conflate historical traumas unnecessarily, and therefore harmfully, but it is also necessary to look at the interplay of these myths when combined with folk language, and then placed in the middle of a book like Southern Road.

This poem has been at best misread, and usually ignored, and I think that displacement of critical attention might be partly because of the space that the poem occupies.  The rhetoric that shaped the world that allowed Brown to write this poem is still shaping our present reality, in terms of how we treat victims of sexual and domestic violence and how law enforcement is allowed to systematically and constantly murder unarmed black men, and then characterize them, post mortem, as beasts who carry an inborn threat in their bodies, wherever they go.    We have yet to successfully unpack the role of language in the brutalizations conducted toward black men in American history.  If we take the time to consider “Frankie and Johnny” carefully, we can see that Sterling Brown’s poem provides us the opportunity and space in which to proceed with this difficult, but unavoidable work.

 

 

Works Consulted

 

 

Apel, Dora and Smith, Shawn Michelle. Lynching Photographs. Berkley: U of California P,

 

  1. Print.

 

Baptist, Edward E. “My Mind is to Drown you and Leave you Behind: ‘Omie Wise, Intimate

Violence, and Masculinity.” Daniels, Christine and Kennedy, Micheal V., eds.  Over the Threshold: Intimate Violence in Early America. New York: Routledge, 1999.  Print.

Beardslee, Karen E. Literary Legacies, Folklore Foundations: Selfhood and Cultural Tradition

in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century American Literature. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2009.  Print.

Brown, Sterling A.  The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. Introduction. Michael S. Harper, ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.  Print.

Southern Road. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1932.  Print.

Dolan, Frances Elizabeth.  Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in

England, 1550 – 1700. New York: Cornell UP, 1994. Print.

Hodes, Martha.  White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South.

New Haven: Yale UP, 1997.    

Hood, Mary Allen.  The American Treasury of 1004 Folk Songs. Berkley: U of California P,

  1. Print.

Huston, John, et. Al.  Frankie and Johnny. New York, B. Blom: 1968.

Jackson, Cassandra.  Barriers Between Us: Interracial Sex in Nineteenth Century American

Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004.

 

Kennedy, Joyce and Michael.  The Oxford Dictionary of Music. Oxford UP: Oxford, 2013.  Web.

Knelman, Judith.  Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press. Toronto: U of

Toronto P, 1999.

Kramer, Victor A. and Russ, Robert A., ed.  Harlem Renaissance Reimagined.

Troy, New York: Whitson Publishing Company, 1997.

Larkin, Colin.  “Frankie and Johnny.”  The Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Oxford: Oxford UP,

  1. Web.

Leisy, James F.  Songs for Pickin’ and Singin’.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1962.

Olmos, Robert.  “Frankie, of ‘Frankie and Johnny’ Fame, Lived Part of Celebrated Life in

Portland.” The Oregonian, 19 April 1964.  Print.

Sanders, Mark A.  Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown. Athens: U of

Georgia P, 1999.

Seal, Lizzie.  Women, Murder and Femininity: Gendered Representations of Women who Kill. 

New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.  Print.

Sparrow, Gerald.  Women who Murder. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1970.  Print.   

Wells, Ida B.  On Lynchings: Red Record, Southern Horrors and Mob Rule in New Orleans.

New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Whitman, T. Stephen.  “ ‘I Have Got the Gun and I will Do What I Please With Her’:

African Americans and Violence in Maryland, 1782-1830.” Daniels, Christine and Kennedy, Micheal V., eds.  Over the Threshold: Intimate Violence in Early America. New York: Routledge, 1999.  Print.

Wood, Amy Louise. “Lynching and spectacle: witnessing racial violence in America, 1890-

 

1940.” Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009.

 

 

 

[1] In his essay “Native Modernism and Southern Road,” Mark A. Sanders actually misdiagnoses Frankie as a “masochist,” which completely misconstrues the language of the poem, and states that Brown is critiquing “violence and dementia,” a conclusion that doesn’t make any sense.

[2] This phrasing is notable when considered alongside the common critique of racist plantation literature as portraying black men and women as caricatures of “humor and pathos,” and perhaps garners a greater investigation into Untermeyer’s reviews.

[3] In Lynching as Spectacle, Amy Louise writes that the violent, ritualistic mob murder of black men at the turn of the century was indicative of a  “fraught connection to modernity. . . lynching would wane, it was assumed, only when southerners became less rural and isolated and developed not only a more enlightened respect for legal institutions and state power but more modern forms of amusement . . . racial violence surged at the turn of the century, however . . . because [southern communities] were undergoing an uncertain and troubled transformation into modern, urban societies” (Wood 5).

[4] See: Sparrow, Seal

[5] See: Dangerous Familiars

[6] According to the Oxford dictionary of American music, “it developed several characteristic traits of the ‘blues’ in common listeners . . .  Few blues were noted by early 20th-century collectors, but those collected frequently had a four-line or rhyming-couplet form. Some of the ballads popular among black singers, for example Railroad Bill, Frankie and Albert, Duncan and Brady and Stack O’Lee, had a single couplet with a rhyming third line as a refrain. In blues the ‘couplet’ consisted of one repeated line; See, See Rider, Joe Turner Blues and Hesitating Blues were among the earliest songs of this type.”

 

[7] In the preface to Southern Horrors, Wells writes: “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women.  If southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”

 

[8] In her pamphlet on the lynchings terrorizing the south that she circulated at the 1893 World’s Fair, Ida B. Wells tried to explain this phenomenon to the public, writing that often, “She was compelled by threats, if not by violence, to make the charge against the victim.”

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