Country Blues => Weenie Campbell Main Forum => SOTM - Song Of The Month => Topic started by: ScottN on December 30, 2016, 06:53:34 PM

Title: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: ScottN on December 30, 2016, 06:53:34 PM
12/30/2016 - SOTM: Stack O? Lee / Stagger Lee / Stagolee / etc.

As much of the Western world has been celebrating the legacy of a ?good? man during this holiday season, my entry for Song Of The Month is about that ?bad? man Stack O? Lee.
Ironically, the legend is based on true events that started on or about Christmas night in 1895 in St. Louis, Missouri where Lee Shelton, nicknamed ?Stack Lee,? shot and killed William Lyons over a dispute about a Stetson hat.  Shelton was sent to prison for this crime and was released in 1911 whereupon he committed another murder and was sent back to prison where he died in 1912.
The song has demonstrated impressive longevity having been recorded over 450 times in the 120 years since the original incident took place.  Variations of the story have been documented in many other forms as well including poems, toasts, movies, and books.

The broad appeal of the song has allowed it to survive and adapt itself to many different environments and messages.  The diverse range of artists who have performed the song range from James Brown to Merle Travis to Pat Boone to Bob Dylan to Cab Calloway to Woody Guthrie to Elvis to the Grateful Dead to?

The musical accompaniment to the song has also included many different forms of instrumentation from full jazz bands, to guitar, ukulele, accordion, etc.
The earliest written mention of the song is in 1897 from the Kansas City Leavenworth Herald where it notes the song as being performed by ?Prof. Charlie Lee, the piano thumper.?  John Lomax received a partial transcription in 1910 and in 1911 Howard W. Odum included 2 versions in the Journal of American Folklore.

An interesting note is that even some early versions of the song include references to Stack O? Lee?s death which must have been rather amusing to Lee Shelton who was still alive when these versions were known.
The earliest recorded version of Stack O? Lee Blues is an Instrumental by Fred Waring?s Pennsylvanians on Victor recorded 4/18/1923:


Other early instrumentals included Frank Westphal & His Regal Novelty Orchestra (1924), Herb Wiedoeft (1924), and Duke Ellington (1927).
The earliest recorded version with lyrics occurred in 1924 and was called ?Skeeg-a-Lee,? written by Lovie Austin and performed by Ford & Ford:


Ma Rainey recorded the song in 1925 with cornetist Louis Armstrong:


Cliff Edwards (aka Ukulele Ike) had 2 sides of the song on record:



For the more guitar oriented here are versions by:
Frank Hutchison (1927) - included on Harry Smith's hugely influential Anthology of American Folk Music:


Furry Lewis (1927):


Mississippi John Hurt (1928):


Personally, MJH?s version on the Complete Studio Recordings was my inspiration to try and learn to play the guitar:


Oddly, the first version I ever learned to play was Dave Van Ronk?s interpretation of Furry Lewis?s original.  This clip has Van Ronk talking about Furry and then playing:


Arguably the most well known version of the song is Lloyd Price?s 1958 recording ?Stagger Lee? that hit #1 in 1959 on both the pop and R&B charts and has inspired many covers:


My favorite piano based version of the song is the following by Professor Longhair:


The popularity of the song also crossed over to artists on the other side of the Atlantic.  Here are a couple of versions for the Euro-Weenies :-)
Lonnie Donegan (1956):


Bert Jansch (1962):

The song has also been featured in several movies with an odd spike in popularity in 2007
1985 Porky?s Revenge by the Fabulous Thunderbirds


2007 Tarantino ?Death Proof? by Pacific Gas & Electric:


2007 ?Honeydripper? by Keb Mo:


2007 ?Black Snake Moan? by Samuel L. Jackson performing a version closely related to R.L. Burnsides?s recorded version:



There are two great books with information related to the true story of Stack O Lee:
Cecil Brown ? ?Stagolee Shot Billy? ? Harvard University Press (2003)
Richard Polenberg ? ?Hear My Sad Story? ? Cornell University Press (2016)
The website below lists many of the recorded versions of the song as well as other related information:
Lyrics for many of the songs are transcribed in the ?Song Families? section in Weeniepedia. 

For those interested in learning the song, JohnM has recorded lessons on both Furry Lewis?s and Mississippi John Hurt?s versions.
I have purposely not included a great many versions of the song in this starting post.  My hope is that others will post versions that they enjoy or that have personal meaning to them that they would like to share.
Thanks you for your time and Happy New Year to all!!!
Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: JRO on December 30, 2016, 10:48:37 PM
Thank you ScottN. Stagolee is great song. Also for me it was one of the first country blues songs I learned to pick on guitar and Mississippi John Hurts versions were models.

There is website of Stagger Lee (http://www.staggerlee.com/index.php) where one can find the story and more than 400 songs among other information. I'd like to add couple versions.

Sol Hoopii's Novelty Trio: Stack O'Lee Blues (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAhBCWuZ8JM) instrumental version from 1926.

Long Cleeve Reed & Little Harvey Hull-Down Home Boys: Original Stack O'Lee Blues (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CfmZ1-CQbo) from 1927. There are similarities to Mississippi John Hurts version which recorded next year.

Archibald:Stack A Lee Parts 1 & 2 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQ_dw8Un7Z4) from 1950. I suppose Arhibalds version was first New Orleans r&b based and he was model for Professor Longhair among many others.

Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: Johnm on December 31, 2016, 06:54:49 AM
Hi all,
Thanks very much, Scott, for putting your Song of the Month post together and tracking down all of the information and the different versions of Stack O'Lee.  Thanks to JRO for posting the additional versions, too.  Here is a version that has been haunting me a bit, mostly because I would like to transcribe the lyrics, and they are so hard to hear.  This musician also recorded versions of the Boll Weevil and Railroad Bill.


All best,
Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: Rivers on December 31, 2016, 03:33:30 PM
Great song. Of the more recent takes on it I admit to being taken with Robert Hunter's version from the album For The Roses, from which I lifted the lyrics from a couple of verses many years ago and overlaid them onto (loosely) Mississippi John Hurt's version in D, I liked them so much, and historical accuracy be darned.

Also, "hats off" to Steve James for his humor and creativity in crafting his John B Stetson Hat, the story told from Stack's point of view. Great writing and performance I reckon.

When I think of the song currently the first thing that pops into my head is Papa Harvey Hull & Cleve Reed's version. I will explore the other takes on it, thanks for putting this out there.
Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: Harry on January 02, 2017, 06:12:48 AM
Excellent topic Scott. Appreciated.

Champion Jack Dupree from the legendary 1958 Atlantic album "Blues from the Gutter"

http://youtu.be/bYn3ToT_e9c (http://youtu.be/bYn3ToT_e9c)
Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: Pan on January 02, 2017, 07:36:04 AM
Thanks for the many versions of the tune, Scottn and everybody! Looking forward to go through them.

Meanwhile, I don't think Lucious Curtis' and Willie Ford's version was listed yet?



Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: Johnm on January 02, 2017, 09:24:48 AM
Hi all,
For those who may never have visited there, "Stack O'Lee" is one of the songs included in the Song Families category in Weeniepedia, and the lyrics to 15 different versions of the song can be found transcribed there.  Check it out--and Happy New Year!
All best,
Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: Johnm on January 06, 2017, 09:01:39 AM
Hi all,
Here is a version from Memphis Slim, with Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson:


I remember, when I was a little boy, sitting on my Mother's knee
She often told me the story about that bad man, Stack O'Lee

She said, "Son, he was a bad man, he was the baddest man I know.
Well, he killed Billy Lyons, blue steel .44."

It were late last night, thought I heard my bulldog bark
Stack O'Lee and Billy Lyons, squabbling in the dark

They did rob poor Billy Lyons, of every dime on Morris Street
Fool boy was bloody from his head down to his feet

Stack O'Lee told Mrs. Billy Lyons, "You don't believe your man is dead?
Why don't you look around the corner, see what a hole he has in his head."


Tom Devlin, he asked his daughter, "Who can this bad man be?"
Said, "It must have been the bad fella called old Stack O'Lee."


All best,
Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: Pan on July 08, 2017, 01:50:58 PM
Hi all,

Here's Professor Longhair doing the song live in 1978.



Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: empo on July 16, 2017, 09:38:31 AM
"Stagger Lee" was the first blues song i ever could play.
Here are some of the different version I recorded over the years. Always based on my favorit Missippi John Hurt.
This version is played together with my partner, trying to include some harmonica playing.

This is my oldest version, recorded some years ago including some dobro fill - ins.

This - at last - is my last version, played on a Regal dobro in open D dropping in a bit of bottleneck playing.
Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: DavidCrosbie on September 21, 2017, 06:58:00 AM
Variations of the story have been documented in many other forms as well including poems, toasts ...
The recited toast versions are very different from the blues ballad versions (and blues based on blues ballads) in that they purport to be the boastful words of Stackolee himself. There's even more murder ? not following a quarrel, but just because Stack feels like it. No card game. No stetson hat. And Biily Lyon appears (if at all) as a sort of lawman or vigilante.

There are eight versions in Bruce Jackson's collection

(https://images-eu.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51baMFoxjIL._AC_US218_.jpg)Get your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me

As they were collected in prisons, the texts are full of extremely violent obscenity, which is a problem on a public form like this. No doubt, members and core-followers would not be offended by the texts, but I can early imaging readers straying here who would be very offended indeed. So here's a version which appears to be self-censored:
It was back in the year of forty-one when the times was hard,
I had a sawed-off shotgun and a marked deck of cards.
I had a faded blue suit and a slouch down hat,
I had a T-model Ford and no payments on that.
I waded through water and I sloshed through mud
till I came to the place they call the Bucket of Blood.
I said, "Say, Mr. Bartender, please, will you give me something to eat?"
He gave me some bitter-assed water and tough-assed meat.
I say, "Say, man, you must not know who I am."
He say, "Frankly, sonofabitch, I don't give a goddamn."
I said, "Say, man, my name is Stack, and I'm from down the way,"
He said, "I don't care about your name bein' Stack and from down the way,"
say, "I meet a hungry person like you each and every day."
About that time the poor boy was dead
with three of my thirty-eight rockets in his head.
A little later on a lady walks in, she say, "Where can the bartender be, please?"
I said, "He's layin' over in the comer with his mind at ease."
She said, "Oh, no, my son," say, "he can't be dead!"
I said, "You better look at them three wide-assed holes in his head."
Little later, about you would hear the drop of a pin,
that's when Billy Lane walks in.
He said, "Who can the murderer of this poor man be?"
I said, "Me, Stackolee."
He said, 'Im gonna give you just one chance to run
before I draw my old Gatling gun."
Now just about the time I got him in my thirty-eight sight
a waitress slipped over and cut out the light.
But now when the light come on old Billy was dead,
he had two more rockets in his head.
Early the next morning at quarter to ten,
they carried me before the judge and twelve other men.
He said, "What can the charges of this poor man be?"
They said, "Murder, your honor, in the first degree."
Judge said, "Well, son, I'm gonna give you a little old sixty-year sentence."
I said, "Judge, sixty years ain't no sentence, sixty years aim'y no time."
I says, "I got a good old buddy over on Ellis doin' ninety-nine."
PS I've just got round to hearing the RL Burnside and Samuel L Jackson tracks. Each is a recitation of a short version of the Stackolee toast ? over an instrumental riff.
Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: DavidCrosbie on September 21, 2017, 07:34:23 AM
And Biily Lyon appears (if at all) as a sort of lawman or vigilante.

Paul Oliver thought that the Long Cleve Reed version seemed to have Billy as a policeman.


Oliver has a chapter on Natural-Born Men: Survivors of the ballad tradition in Songsters & Saints (https://images-eu.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/41CBLH52xuL._AC_US218_.jpg)

His transcription of the track is
Stack O'Lee was a bully, he bullied all his life,
He bullied two, three coppers down with a ten-cent pocket knife,
      Well it's cruel Stack O'Lee.

Stack said to Billy, 'How can it be, you arrest a man as bad as me. (oh bad man)
But you won't 'rest Stack O'Lee.
     Well it's cruel Stack O'Lee (oh, bad man)

Stack said to Billy, "Don't you take my life,
Well I ain't got but two Ii'! children and a darlin' lovin' wife,"
     Well it's cruel Stack O'Lee.

"One is a boy and the other? is a girl",
"You may see your children again but it'll be in another world."
     Well it's cruel Stack O'Lee.

Standing on the corner, well I didn't mean no harm.
Well a policeman caught me, well he grabbed me by my arm
     Well, it's cruel Stack O'Lee,

Stack O'Lee and Billy had an awful fight,
Well Stack O'Lee killed Billy Lyons one cold dark stormy night.
     Well it's cruel Stack O'Lee.

Standing on the hill-top, the dogs begin to bark,
Well it wasn't nothin' but Stack O'Lee come creepin' in the dark
     Well it's cruel Stack O'Lee.

However, I agree that Johnm's transcription (below) is better...
Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: Johnm on September 21, 2017, 09:34:52 AM
Hi DavidCrosbie,
I believe Paul Oliver had a number of lyrics wrong in his transcription of "Original Stack O'Lee Blues", including the refrain.  Here's what we have from the Down Home Boys lyrics thread and Weeniepedia:

Stack O'Lee was a bully, he bullied all his life
Well, he bullied through Chicago town with a ten cent pocket knife
REFRAIN: Let it go, Stack O'Lee

Stack says to Billy, "How can it be?
You arrest a man just as bad as me, but you won't 'rest Stack O'Lee"
REFRAIN: Let it go, Stack O'Lee


Stack says to Billy, "Don't you take my life.
Well, I ain't got nothin' but two little chirrens and a darlin' lovin' wife."
REFRAIN: Let it go, Stack O'Lee

"One is a boy and the other 'un is a girl."
"Well, you may see your children again but it be in another world."
REFRAIN: Let it go, Stack O'Lee

Standing on the corner, well, I didn't mean no harm
Well, a policeman caught me, well, he grabbed me by my arm
REFRAIN: Let it go, Stack O'Lee

Stack O'Lee and Billy had a noble fight
Well, Stack O'Lee killed Billy Lyon one cold dark stormy night
REFRAIN: Let it go, Stack O'Lee

SPOKEN, DURING SOLO: Oh, play it, boys!

Standin' on the hilltop, his dog begin to bark
Well, it wasn't nothin' but Stack O'Lee come creeping in the dark
REFRAIN: Let it go, Stack O'Lee

All best,
Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: DavidCrosbie on September 21, 2017, 06:42:42 PM
I've found this transcription on Muscat of the a cappella version sung by the Parchment Farm prisoner known as Bama.
I think the transcription is taken from the sleeve notes to Murderer's Home. I've changed the punctuation to bring out the eight-bar structure.
Now Stackerlee, he was a bad man : he wanted the round world to know
He toted a 32-20 : and a smokeless 44.

Now Stackerlee, Lord, and Billy Lyon : they was gamblin' early one day
Stackerlee losin' money : and he throwed the cards away.

Now Stackerlee, he told Billy Lyon : "Billy, I'm sho' gonna take yo' life
You have winned my money, Stack, : and I have found a foul dice."

Now Billy Lyon he told Stackerlee :  he says, "Stack, please don't take my life!
I have two little chillen : and my po' little weasely wife."

"Now one of them is a boy, Stack : and the other one is a girl."
"But if you love yo' chillen, Billy Lyon : you will have to meet them in the other world."

Now Stackerlee, he told Billy Lyon : "Billy I thought you was a gambling man
You know you passed leads in the second : and you know you done fouled yo' hand."

Now Stackerlee, he shot Billy Lyon : way down on the barroom flo'
It was early one mornin' : just about fifteen to four.

Now Billy Lyon mother, she come runnin' : she said, "Lord, have mercy on my son
Po' Billy Lyon done got murdered : and I know he didn't have his gun!"
Bama then creates a satisfying conclusion to the performance with the ending of another song:
Alberta, Lord, Alberta : baby don't you hear me calling you?
But you three times seven, Alberta, : and you know what you want to do.

I'm going to call up the undertaker : Lord, I'm going to ring up Mr. Moss
I'm going to ask those people : What will Alberta funeral cost?

I wants a two hundred dollar coffin : Lord, I wants a hundred dollar hearse
And that will put Alberta, I know, : six feet in the earth.

Now give me water, Lord, when I'm thirsty, : honey, give me whiskey when I'm dry
Give me Alberta when I need her : and Heaven when I die.

Now when I gets all up in Glory : Lord I'm gonna sit down on the golden stool
And I'm going to ask St. Gabriel : to blow me the "Worried Blues."
My point is that a blues ballad could have an eight-bar structure like this. Or it could add a refrain ? thus making the twelve-bar structure which many see as the origin of the twelve-bar blues form.

Interesting to see so many pianists (Memphis Slim, as well as the New Orleans artists) preferring the eight-bar variant.
Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: DavidCrosbie on September 30, 2017, 08:03:25 AM

OK, here attached is a low-quality sound file of an actual performance of a version of the Stackolee toast ? an uncensored text to compare with the versions by RL Burnside and Samuel L Jackson. I'd forgotten that I had the CD. I refused before to post the text, and still do so, but those who listen should be OK ? provided they first read the warnings.

1. On the Rounder CD is a sticker
Contains lots of dirty words and violent imagery

2. Bruce Jackson in the liner notes to the Rounder CD points to different source of offence
The toasts are a male genre, not only in performance, but in content: in only a few does one find women included for any purpose other than exercise of male options, male power, male anger.

About this toast he summarises
"Stackolee" is  about an irrational badman who engages in gratuitous violence and joyless sexuality, a man who fires his gun a lot but is almost totally nonverbal. He is the archetypal bully blindly striking out, articulating or discharging his rage on any passing object or person. His sheer strength and big pistol bring him fame, but there are for him no solutions, only occasional valve-openings.

In the blues ballad there's no sex, but Stackolee is basically the same trigger-happy bully, flying into a rage over a stetson hat or something comparably trivial.

Jackson reports that Mississippi John Hurt told several Stackolee tales. Unfortunately, Jackson gives no inkling of what the tales were like ? only that in John's stories Stackolee was white.
Title: Re: SOTM December 30, 2016 Stack O' Lee
Post by: DavidCrosbie on October 02, 2017, 06:48:47 PM
Here, finally, is the low-grade sound file of the Stackolee toast. If there's the slightest chance that you'll be offended, please read the warnings in the message above.

It's on the Rounder CD accompanying the book   (https://images-eu.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/61vAVhZDTfL._AC_US218_.jpg)

I also attach a version of the blues ballad by John Cephas and Phil Wiggins ?
taken from the Smithsonian Folkways CD Classic African-American Ballads  (https://images-eu.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51sAXtLoaQL._AC_US218_.jpg)
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