Saturday

SPOTLIGHT: STAGGER LEE

stag.gif stack'o lee image by confetta_bucket
Stagger Lee, frequently also known as Stagolee, Stackerlee, Stack O'Lee, Stack-a-Lee and by several other variants, is a popular blues folk song based on the murder of William "Billy" Lyons by Stagger Lee Shelton. The version recorded by Mississippi John Hurt in 1928 is considered by some commentators to be definitive, containing as it does all of the elements that appear in other versions.
A cover with different lyrics was a chart hit for Lloyd Price in 1959; Dick Clarkfelt that the original tale of murder was too morbid for his American Bandstand audience, and insisted that they be changed to eliminate the murder. In Clark's version, the subject was changed from gambling to fighting over a woman, and instead of a murder, the two yelled at each other, and made up the next day. Despite the changes, it was the original version of the song that reached #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 and was ranked #456 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
"Stag O Lee" songs may have predated even the 1895 incident, and Lee Shelton may have gotten his nickname from earlier folk songs. The first published version of the song was by folklorist John Lomax in 1910. The song was well known in African American communities along the lower Mississippi River by the 1910s.

Before World War II, it was almost always known as "Stack O'Lee". W.C. Handy wrote that this probably was a nickname for a tall person, comparing him to the tall smokestack of the largesteamboat Robert E. Lee. By the time W.C. Handy wrote that explanation in the 1920s, "Stack O' Lee" was already familiar in United States popular culture, with recordings of the song made by such pop singers of the day as Cliff Edwards.
In Hurt's version, as in all such pieces, there are many (sometimes anachronistic) variants on the lyrics. Several older versions give Billy's last name as "De Lyons" or "Deslile".
A version by The Fabulous Thunderbirds can be found on the Porky's Revenge soundtrack. Johnny Otis's band Snatch and the Poontangs perform a version in which the violence is matched by the sex.
The Grateful Dead recorded a version of the tale which focuses on the fictionalized hours after the death of "Billy DeLion", when Billy's wife Delia tracks down Stagger Lee in a local saloon and "she shot him in the balls" in revenge for Billy's death.
Elton John's 1976 "Blue Moves" album included the song "Shoulder Holster", about a vengeful woman out to kill her cheating ex. The song begins with the lyrics "It was just like Frankie and Johnny / And it was just like Stagger Lee".
The 1979 album London Calling by The Clash includes a ska version (a cover of a song by the Jamaican rocksteady group The Rulers) titled "Wrong 'Em Boyo", in which Stagger Lee is explicitly the hero and Billy the villain. Another variant by Austin blues artist Steve James retells the story from Stagger Lee's perspective, as the underprivileged child of a prostitute and a steamboat worker, and like the Clash's version, Billy is not innocent.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, by contrast, present an even more violent and homoerotic version of the song "Stagger Lee" on their 1996 album Murder Ballads. This version retakes a street "toast poem" on Stagolee. Toasts are 'pre-rap' poems and stories especially popular among those in "the life" and among prisoners. The song contains much swearing and shows the story from a neutral perspective; Stagger Lee refers to himself as "The Bad Motherfucker." The song also appears to set the story in the 1930s. This is evident in the opening line "It was back in '32 when times were hard."

More recently, the Black Keys recorded a song entitled "Stack Shot Billy" on their 2004 album Rubber Factory. In 2005, Chris Whitley and Jeff Lang recorded their own arrangement of the song, called "Stagger Lee", ultimately released on their 2006 CD Dislocation Blues.
A version of Staggolee performed by Pacific Gas & Electric was included on the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino's film Death Proof, the second portion of the 2007 double-feature Grindhouse. In the 2007 film Black Snake Moan, Samuel L. Jackson's character sings a boastful version of the song from Stagger Lee's perspective, titled "Stackolee". This version is based on R. L. Burnside's rendition which can be heard on the album Well, Well, Well.

List of artists to record song

  • Mississippi John Hurt
  • Sidney Bechet
  • The Black Keys
  • Pat Boone
  • James Brown
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
  • Dick Clark
  • Ken Colyer
  • Neil Diamond
  • Fats Domino
  • Bob Dylan
  • Johnny Dodds
  • Duke Ellington
  • The Fabulous Thunderbirds
  • Grateful Dead
  • Woody Guthrie
  • Bill Haley & His Comets
  • John Holt
  • The Isley Brothers
  • Dr. John
  • Furry Lewis
  • The Rooftop Singers
  • John Cephas and Phil Wiggins
  • Taj Mahal
  • Memphis Slim
  • Modern Life is War
  • Huey Lewis and the News
  • Professor Longhair
  • New Monsoon
  • Pacific Gas & Electric
  • Lloyd Price
  • Wilson Pickett
  • Ike and Tina Turner
  • Doc Watson
  • Snatch and the Poontangs
  • Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes
  • Travis MacRae
  • Ma Rainey
  • Tommy Roe
  • Tom Rush
  • Dave Van Ronk
  • The Clash
  • Sam the Sham

External links

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