Saturday, March 26, 2016

"The Saga of Frankie & Johnny" by John Held, Jr.

Live long, drink deep, be jolly, Ye most illustrious votaries of folly !
-Desiderius Erasmus 

For anyone who loves rough, expressive, black and white woodcuts that tell a good story of the common people, a copy of John Held, Jr.'s The Saga of Frankie and Johnny is a must-have.

If readers are not already familiar with the 
popular American ballad Frankie and Johnny, it's a story that dates back to the turn of the last century about a woman who catches her man cheating, shoots him dead, and is subsequently tried and executed for murder. 

John Held, Jr. created his woodcut illustrations of the ballad in 1915 when he was 26 years old and living in NYC during the Jazz Age In the book's preface, Held writes:

"Versions in the hundreds have been turned up, but basically the saga is the same. Versions have been evolved to fit the locality, but the story of the eternal triangle remains identical. Details are rearranged to fit geographic conditions. In this illustrated edition, I have taken only the rudimentary verses. I have tried to keep off of local tangents."  

I've had this book in my possession and been enjoying it on many occasions over the past nearly two years. The intense mix of humor with pathos never fades. I don't linger over the right or wrong of the choices made and consequences endured by the characters. All at once they somehow seem farcical archetypes and real people to both pity and admire. This is driven home by the artist's ambivalence toward consistency in the details of the visual narrative.

For example, the three images from the book I present in this post all illustrate the moments when Frankie is shooting Johnny. In the first in the sequence, Frankie looks and points the gun directly at Johnny's punctured heart, which he grasps. He stands at the top of a stairway, suggesting he may fall backward and tumble down the steps. The smoke from the gun is thick and black. It is an image of aggressive violence stemming from sudden rage. However, in the very next image in the sequence, the mood has dramatically changed. Here Frankie stands over the fallen Johnny, still alive, but clearly dying. His black blazer is now white, as if he has now paid for his sins in full. The stairs are gone, replaced by a jagged tear in the top of the wall above Johnny that is mimicked by the zig-zag line of smoke coming from Frankie's gun. She has turned away, too horrified by her lover's suffering to watch. Her cross necklace is gone, her shoes have changed, and her one breast exposed in the first image is now discreetly covered by her bodice, as if to drive home that though only a moment has passed, already this is not quite the same Frankie.

The third image presented here does not come until much later in the sequence, after Frankie has mourned Johnny's death and repented her actions. At this point she is on trial for the murder, and the image, like the song lyric paired with it, is pure comic relief: "I didn't shoot him in the third degree. I shot him in the ass." But if she literally shot him in the ass, why do the images paired with the actual moment of this crime of passion have him shot in the heart? The obvious answer is that to get across the seriousness of Frankie's rage, horror, and Johnny's suffering, being shot in the heart was the greater truth. What is consistent in the narrative is the characters' types, their patterns of behavior, their utter humanness. What transpires seems not only predictable, but inevitable. The details that matter are not the literal minutiae, but the subjective truth of any given moment. 

Frankie and Johnny are the votaries of folly they are, no more, no less. We must laugh at, pity, and ultimately love them for who they are, just as we must love our foolish selves. 

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