Morning Edition had a great story on November 24, 2004
"Frankie and Johnny" is a classic American ballad about a woman who shoots her lover for cheating. It's based on a true story and has been rewritten by countless writers and recorded by dozens of performers. Novelist Cecil Brown wrote an essay about the song for the new book The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad.Listen here http://www.npr.org/about/people/bios/sinskeep.html
Reed has also writeen Stagolee Shot Billy, about another 1890 St. Louis killing turned into song. The website has a very nice sampling of Stagolee songs.
From the site's description:
How the legend grew is a story in itself, and Brown tracks it through variants of the song "Stack Lee"--from early ragtime versions of the '20s, to Mississippi John Hurt's rendition in the '30s, to John Lomax's 1940s prison versions, to interpretations by Lloyd Price, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett, right up to the hip-hop renderings of the '90s. Drawing upon the works of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, Brown describes the powerful influence of a legend bigger than literature, one whose transformation reflects changing views of black musical forms, and African Americans' altered attitudes toward black male identity, gender, and police brutality. This book takes you to the heart of America, into the soul and circumstances of a legend that has conveyed a painful and elusive truth about our culture.