Murder Ballad Monday: Jimmie Rodgers, “Frankie and Johnny”

One of my favorite panels at this year’s AWP conference featured the novelist Wesley Stace , also known as singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, talking about storytelling in music. Ballads and poems provide essential clues to the mystery in his excellent first novel, the comic melodrama Misfortune, and also feature in his just-released book, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer.

Stace praised the ballad form as a deceptively simple yet profound form that gets right to the crisis point in a character’s history. Though retribution is usually swift and inevitable, there’s rarely any moralizing about the characters’ crimes, an open-endedness that allows us to choose how deeply we identify with the story.

I thought of his analysis when I heard these lines toward the end of the classic murder ballad “Frankie and Johnny,” performed here by Jimmie Rodgers: “This story has no moral, this story has no end, this story just goes to show that there ain’t no good in men.”

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