John Hurt’s murder ballads

I checked out everything I could find recorded by John Hurt from the library. I blogged about him a while back. It is all wonderful. The original 1928 recordings, despite their low recording quality, are my favorites. I am happy the folk revival found him and he shared more of his gifts with us.

While listening to his music tonight, I started wondering about “Frankie and Albert,” a murder ballad he recorded. It often is titled “Frankie and Johnny.” I learned a different version here in Saint Louis. It happens that the murder took place in Saint Louis in 1899 when Frankie Baker killed Allen Britt. Coincidentally as I am research and writing, a version is playing right now on KDHX‘s Suffragette City. DJ Rene said it was by Joe Callicott from Not the Same Old Blues Crap 3 released by Fat Possum Records in Oxford, Mississippi.

I lived in Oxford. I saw a raccoon or two there, but no possums that I recall. I did see a possum crossing Maryland Avenue near West End Terrace about 1 AM Saturday. While not especially fat, it was not in any hurry. It went next to the apartments. I turned around and pointed my headlights at it, but I lost it before I could take pictures.

Schlafly head honcho Tom Schlafly reports in this editorial that Frankie Baker shot Allen Britt over his infidelity with Alice Pryor on October 15, 1899 at 22 Targee Street. The movie Frankie and Johnnie was made about the incident. This source reports that Baker sued and settled for $200,000 in 1939, and this one that she died in a Portland mental institution in 1950. Another source has the lawsuit against Republic Pictures being dismissed in 1942. I found a claim and another that the song may have earlier origins in a very similar murder that happened a few decades earlier in the same neighborhood. Allen Britt‘s grave is in Saint Peter’s Cemetery. This summary hits the high points of the story.

A page at the library reports that Targee Street was the name of a section of the current Johnson Street between Clay and Market Streets before 1903 to honor fireman Thomas Targee killed in the Great Saint Louis Fire of 1849. As best I can tell, the Savvis Center, or maybe the Kiel Opera House, sits on the site today.

Searching for information, I came across this post at a fine blog called TRICKSTER! I appreciate his sentiments and just want to share. It got me curious about Mystery Train, a book on images in rock music with a section on Stagger Lee. Lee Sheldon shot Billy Lyons here in Saint Louis at 11th Street and Morgan Street, now Delmar Boulevard, on or around Christmas, 1895 at or near a bar. This story in the Riverfront Times, our local free weekly, got me restarted on Stagger Lee a few years ago. I still have a clipping of it. Versions of the song, Lloyd Price‘s and John Hurt’s, make 8% of my iTunes Top 25. I also really like a different a capella version I have on Prison Blues of the South. Stagolee Shot Billy is a whole book about the incident and the song that I ought to read. The website for the book linked in the previous sentence looks good, too. Here is a good review. I skimmed this page on the song. It reports that Lee Sheldon lived at 911 N 12th Street, now 911 N Tucker Blvd. Here is a story from the December 28, 1895 St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat. Billy Lyons is also buried in Saint Peter’s Cemetery.

William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets. by Lee Sheldon, also colored. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. The discussion drifted to politics and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon drew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. He was removed to the city hospital. At the time of the shooting, the saloon was crowded with negroes. Sheldon is a carriage driver and lives at North Twelfth Street. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Sheldon is also known as “Stag” Lee.

The parcels around the old 11th and Morgan Streets are 1005 Convention Plaza, northeast corner government offices, 1116 Convention Plaza, northwest corner city building, 721 North 11th Street, southwest corner part of a parking lot, and 1018 Convention Plaza, southeast corner part of a parking lot. There is no 1410 Delmar Boulevard that I could find, but there are 1400 and 1422.

I want to go see these places for myself.

I mainly have been wondering about “Louis Collins,” another beautiful murder ballad recorded by Hurt. My wishful thinking was that it occured in Saint Louis, Mississippi or some point between, allowing me to stake out the story sometime. According to the only information I found, Hurt said that he composed the song himself based on stories he had heard.

1 Comment »

Michael M. on February 2nd 2005 in General, Music, Recorded

One Response to “John Hurt’s murder ballads”

  1. jason responded on 04 Feb 2005 at 11:22 am #

    Morgan,
    Formerly, I inhabited St Louis for 5 years. Wonderful to hear this story. Just wish I’d known when I was there!
    Thanks.

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