A Bad, Bad Man: Stagger Lee and Oral Tradition

A Bad, Bad Man: Stagger Lee and Oral Tradition June 5, 2012

Poking around after the death of Doc Watson, I found Doc’s version of Stackolee:

The story of Stackolee/Stackerlee/Stagger Lee is very simple: On Christmas Day in 1895, “Stag” Lee Shelton and William “Billy” Lyon were together in the Bill Curtis Saloon in St. Louis. According to a report in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, there was an argument between the two, which escalated when Lyon swiped Shelton’s stetson hat. When Lyon refused to return the hat, Shelton drew out a revolver and shot Lyon.

There were four other murders in St. Louis on that day, but something about this shooting stuck in people’s minds. Within two years there was a song about it. Fifteen years after the shooting, the musicologist John Lomax received a version of the lyrics from a woman in Memphis, which he later published in his book American Ballads and Folksongs. In 1911, two versions were published in the Journal of American Folklore by the sociologist and oral historian Howard W. Odum.

Now the Definitive List of Stagger Lee Songs currently names 428 recorded versions of the song. Lloyd Price made a version in 1958, making it a hit and performing it on American Bandstand. It’s been covered by Pat Boone, the Isley Brothers (with a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar) and Huey Lewis & The News. Other versions have been done by Tom Jones, The Clash, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Beck, Nick Cave and on and on. Elvis sung a version that was never released, making it out only as a bootleg. No doubt there are many more versions that were never captured.

Watson’s version is similar to Mississippi John Hurt’s version, which is a classic recorded in 1928. Around the same time, Walter “Furry” Lewis recorded Billy Lyons and Stack O’Lee. I should probably post Lewis himself, but instead here’s Dave Van Ronk faithfully performing Lewis’ version. I post this because it was the first version I ever heard, and become Van Ronk overdoes it so beautifully:

Both of the songs above agree that Stagger Lee was a bad, cruel man, but there’s an element of admiration for a man so bad that even the Devil is afraid of him. Stagger Lee became a folk anti-hero within the southern black community. As James Hauser points out, “He was an admired figure whose legend revolved around his badness, a badness which put him above the white man’s law and allowed him to pass freely through the racial boundaries established by Jim Crow.”

What the Lewis-Van Ronk version misses is the hat. The stetson was important to the historical account. Hats were important symbols of masculinity, and the loss of the hat was the direct insult that sparked the shooting. Somehow the Lewis-Van Ronk stream of tradition has replaced the argument over the hat with a gambling argument.

Even more interesting is Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s version, produced in 1926:

The John Hurt and “Furry” Lewis versions were similar, but this is something else all together. Rainey combined the folks song of Lee Shelton with another folk song about another murder in St. Louis a few years later. In 1899, Frankie Baker shot her lover Allen Britt for getting involved with another women. A folk song was written, and after many mutations became the song “Frankie and Johnny,” with its refrain “He’s done me wrong.”

Rainey hybridized the songs, taking the refrain and the tune from “Frankie and Johnny” and adding in Stagger Lee’s badness. Rainey seems to be reflecting on the less romantic side of badness. Lee dies ingloriously, “pretty women and old corn whiskey was the cause of it all.”

Alright, enough amateur musicology, so what’s the point of all of this?

As an archivist, I’d perversely curious about oral culture. Folk songs like this one seem like one of the few remaining connections to a pre-literate world. So I wonder it they might be used as an analogy to the oral culture that produced the stories in the Gospels

Before anyone jumps, the problems with making analogies between 1st Century Palestine and early 20th Century America are obvious and massive. Still, most sources I’ve read agree that oral cultures preserve the sense of the story while playing fast and loose with the details. Perhaps we can use folk songs like Stagger Lee to illustrate what that might look like.

The essential sense of the story is Stagger Lee’s badness. Every version preserves that, even while sometimes the view of the badness changes. However, details drop in and out.

The hat is an obvious example, but there are others. In one of Odum’s 1911 versions, Stagger Lee is sentenced to hang and pleads to the jury to think of his three children and his “little lovin’ wife.” The wife and three children show up in later versions as the family of Billy Lyons as he begs Stagger Lee to spare his life. The location of the murder changes as well. The original Lomax version supposedly takes place in Memphis, while Lomax later found another version that places the shooting in New Orleans.

And of course, Shelton didn’t hang. Instead he died in prison of tuberculosis. In fact, he was still alive when the earliest versions were published, proclaiming him dead.

Playing off of that, Derek McCulloch and Shepard Hendrix sketch a great scene in their Stagger Lee graphic novel. Shelton hears a fellow inmate singing “Stackolee” and remarks that the song is about him. The inmate responds, “I don’t know ’bout that … I think Stackalee from Memphis.” The person Lee Shelton and the character Stagger Lee have separated.

The three versions I’ve chosen here – John Hurt, Furry Lewis and Ma Rainey – can all credibly claim to come from the 1920s. That puts them at about 30+ years after the shooting, about the same as the gap between the writing of the Gospel of Mark and the death of Jesus. Try to imagine attempting to reconstruct the story of Lee Shelton and William Lyons based on the information given in these songs.

What does come through very clearly is the basic message that Stagger Lee was a bad man, and the conflicting feelings of admiration and fear for a man who can transgress. Whether or not Lee Shelton was such a man is questionable, but Stagger Lee was a bad, bad man.

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