Saturday, May 11, 2013

Stagger Lee, Nick Cave, and Murder Ballads

Like a lot of people from my generation, the first variation on the story of Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons I encountered was The Clash's ska-inflected "Wrong'Em Boyo," on London Calling. When I first heard an actual old-school bluesman sing the song - it was probably Mississippi  John Hurt's "Stack-O-Lee" - I assumed, wrongly, that that version alone was the one The Clash were riffing on; but something happens the more exposure you get to the blues. You discover that there are in fact dozens of variants on the story; the Clash borrow most heavily from Lloyd Price's version (or perhaps Wilbert Harrison's - not sure which takes primacy), but there are also variants from (in no particular order) Furry Lewis, RL Burnside, Memphis Slim, Ma Rainey, Frank HutchisonCab CallowayWoodie Guthrie, Wilson PickettDave van Ronk, Ike and Tina Turnerthe McCoys, the New Lost City Ramblers, James BrownDr. John, the Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal, Dave Edmunds, Jerry Reed, Huey Lewis, Beck, Amy Winehouse, and even Samuel L. Jackson. My favourite is the one by Long Cleve Reed and the Down Home Boys; trivially, there is apparently only one known existing 78 rpm recording of their interpretation of the song, owned by collector, radio personality, John Fahey cohort, and musician Joe Bussard, the subject of the delightful documentary Desperate Man Blues. (It is said that Bussard turned down $30,000 for the record, and that he wants to be buried with it). As you'll notice if you listen to a few of the previous, not only does the arrangement of the song tend to change from one to the other, there are often different elaborations on the story and the spellings of the names of the participants - though gambling, murder, and a Stetson hat are frequently featured. Likely the earliest transcription of the lyrics occurs in Alan Lomax's Folk Songs of North America, which I will here reprint for interested parties; Lomax based it on "the singing of Negro prisoners in the Mississippi Penitentiary":

It was early, early one mornin'
When I heard my bulldog bark
Stagolee and Billy Lyons
Was squabblin' in the dark

Stagolee told Billy Lyons
"What do you think of that?
You win all my money, Billy,
Now you spit in my Stetson hat"

Stagolee, he went a-walkin'
In the red hot, broilin' sun -
Says, "bring me my six-shooter,
Lawd, I wants my forty-one."

Stagolee he went a-walkin'
Through the mud and through the sand.
Says, "I feel mistreated this mornin',
I could kill most any man."

Billy Lyons told Stagolee
"Please don't take my life,
I've got three little helpless chillun
And one poor, pitiful wife."

"Don't care nothin' about your chillun,
And nothin' about your wife.
You done mistreated me, Billy,
And I'm bound to take your life."

He shot him three times in the shoulder
Lawd, and three times in the side,
Well the last time that he shot him
Cause Billy Lyons to die.

Stagolee told Mrs. Billy 
"You don't believe your man is dead;
Come into the bar-room
See the hole I shot in his head."

The high sheriff told his deputies,
"Get your pistols and come with me.
We got to go 'rest that
Bad man Stagolee."

The deputies took their pistols
And they laid them on the shelf -
"If you want that bad man Stagolee,
Go 'rest him by yourself."

High sherriff ask the bartender,
"Who can that bad man be?"
"Speak softly," said the bartender,
"It's that bad man Stagolee."

He touch Stack on the shoulder,
Say, "Stack, why don't you run?"
"I don't run, white folks,
When I got my forty-one."

The hangman put the mask on,
Tied his hands behind his back,
Sprung the trap on Stagolee
But his neck refused to crack.

Hangman, he got frightened,
Said, "Chief, you see how it be -
I can't hang this man,
Better set him free."

Three hundred dollar funeral,
Thousand dollar hearse,
Satisfaction undertaker
Put Stack six feet in the earth

Stagolee, he told the Devil,
Says, "Come on and have some fun -
You stick me with your pitchfork,
I'll shoot you with my forty-one."

Stagolee took the pitchfork
And he laid it on the shelf.
Says, "Stand back, Tom Devil,
I'm gonna rule Hell by myself."

It's interesting that there appear to be three different possible endings offered in the course of one transcription, with Stag defying authority ("I don't run, white folks"), escaping hanging, and going to Hell nonetheless. Maybe the Lomax transcription is already incorporating more than one singer's take on the story?

Another set of lyrics, offered by the Silber Folksinger's Wordbook - which appears to follow Mississippi John Hurt's version - has Billy identified as Billy de Lyons; it focuses more on Stag's trial and execution, omitted above. The final verses are:

The judge said, Stagolee,
What you doing in here,
You done shot Mr. Billy de Lyons
You going to die in the electric chair;
He was a bad man,
That mean old Stagolee

Twelve o'clock they killed him
Head reached up high,
Last thing that poor boy said
My six-shooter never lied.
He was a bad man,
That mean old Stagolee

Equally complex, Lomax offers various speculations as to the origins of the story, saying none are definitive; but since the time of his writing, in 1960, apparently folk historians have decided who exactly Stagger Lee was. Wikipedia offers that he was a Missouri pimp named Lee Shelton, who killed Billy Lyons after a night of drinking, on Christmas 1895, when, after having fallen into a dispute, Lyons grabbed Shelton's hat. He would eventually be released, kill another man, and return to jail; Shelton died in prison, in 1912, by which time his story was already being told in song.

You can get a more exhaustive glimpse of the Stagger Lee timeline, and suggestions as to other recordings, here. For our present purposes, note that, in none of the above variants on the story of Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons are homosexual rape, forced fellatio, or the word "motherfucker" featured. These are, to my knowledge, strictly the contributions to folk history of one lone Australian, Nick Cave - memorable contributions indeed.
Cave's studio version, with lyrics, can be encountered here (with a rock video!); you'll note that if you watch this Youtube clip of his recent Vancouver concert, he actually includes an extra verse, which involves a confrontation with the Devil, absent from the studio recording, but present in many of the blues and folk songs linked above. I've been listening to Murder Ballads, the album where it appears, pretty much every day this week; for some reason I wasn't sold on it when I first heard it at the time of its release - perhaps being burnt out by having followed Nick Cave's career from his first solo LP (eight in a row, plus various Birthday Party records; I was overloaded, or maybe I just wasn't ready for it at the time). Mike Usinger of the Georgia Straight has said its one of his top two favourite albums, vying with the Stranglers' Rattus Norvegicus; Usinger says he likes to "sit on my back porch with a bottle of port and cigar with it outside on the first snowfall of the year," advising that cold weather really contributes to the listening experience. I'm not quite prepared to put my CD away until winter, as he suggests, but I think I'm coming to agree with him that it's a brilliant album, one of Cave's very best; Usinger's comments, and Cave's magnificent performance of the song in question at the show, were more than ample inducement to pick up the album again and give it another chance, and I am very, very glad I did. Check out "The Curse of Millhaven," if you don't know it, for another example of how brilliant Murder Ballads is (here, there's no American traditional song informing Cave - the twistedness is 100% his).


Allan MacInnis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Allan MacInnis said...

Chris Towers of The New Creation points out that there's another notable version of the tale of Stagolee - that of the Rooftop Singers. The closest version I can find on Youtube - with markedly different lyrics, but still no fellatio - is below; it's their arrangement, but not their recording (I assume the singer just didn't want her face shown, and that's she's singing AND playing the guitar you see):

Edgar said...

Nick Cave's raunchy version seems to owe much to the 1969 recording by Snatch and the Poontangs (the great Johnny Otis R&B bandleader, and his son Shuggy Otis).
This can be heard on the following link...