The Lee Line also had a riverboat called the Stacker Lee, built in 1902 and named after the white cavalryman. It joined the fleet too late to influence Shelton's choice of nickname, but its regular trips between St Louis and Memphis may well have helped to spread his story's fame and spark new versions of the song. Other boats from the Lee Line inspired blues songs of their own, most notably Charley Patton's 1929 Jim Lee Blues, but only the Stacker Lee came with a ready-made legend attached.
The first records to exploit that legend were instrumentals by white dance bands. Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians and Frank Westphal's Royal Novelty Orchestra released rival versions of a foxtrot called Stack O'Lee Blues in 1923, which sounds nothing like the tune we know today. Duke Ellington's Washingtonians added their own recording of this instrumental in 1927.
The first black version of the song committed to wax was Ford & Ford's Skeeg-a-Lee Blues, released by Paramount in 1924. Ma Rainey recorded a jazzy song called Stack O'Lee Blues two years later, but took the tune and some lyrics from Frankie & Albert, another St Louis murder ballad of about the same vintage. Rainey makes no attempt to tell the story of Billy Lyons' killing. Her Stack O'Lee is certainly a villain but his sin, like Albert's, is treating his woman badly. “He was my man,” Rainey groans. “But he done me wrong.”
The first records based on the real murder arrived in 1927. An early Mississippi bluesman called Little Harvey Hull and his trio The Down Home Boys put a subversive spin on the tale with their Original Stack O'Lee Blues. Accompanied by a slow-picked acoustic guitar, Hull sings:
“Stack said to Billy
'How can it be,
You arrest a man that's as bad as me,
But you won't arrest Stack O'Lee?'
And it's oh, Stack O' Lee!”
“Standing on the corner,
Well I didn't mean no harm,
Well that policeman caught me,
Well he grabbed me by my arm,
And it's oh, Stack O'Lee!” (6)
It's clear from these verses that Hull casts Billy as a policeman - presumably a white policeman - and one who tries to arrest Stack on a trumped-up charge. It's also clear that Billy is a little afraid of Stack, and that Stack is confident enough to taunt this white authority figure to his face. When the cowardly, unjust, copper forces Stack to kill him, it seems like an entirely excusable crime, and we join Hull in an indulgent chuckle when Stack returns to his old roguish ways in the song's final verse. This treatment of Billy may have been inspired by the fact that Lyons had once worked as a watchman - what we would call a security guard, and only one step removed from the police.
Like many early versions of the song, Hull's take was released on a “race” label, aimed at an exclusively black audience and offering them a cathartic tale of a strong black man overcoming bigoted white authority. Stag had long been an anti-hero in the work songs and folktales telling his story, and most of the records following Hull's would take that line too.
Most, but not quite all. Mississippi John Hurt's version of Hull's tune, released the following year, contrasted Hurt's wonderfully pretty guitar playing with a resolutely unromantic set of lyrics:
“Gentlemens of the jury,
What you think of that?
Stack O'Lee killed Billy Lyons,
'Bout a $5 Stetson hat,
That bad man,
Oh cruel Stack O'Lee!
“Standing on the gallows,
Head way up high,
At 12 o'clock they killed him,
They was all glad to see him die,
That bad man,
Oh cruel Stack O'Lee!” (7)
Hurt's delivery suggests a bone-weary sadness at the constant violence poor black communities like St Louis' would have had to endure. He begins by berating the police for refusing to arrest Stack earlier and reminds us again and again just how cruel this bad man is. Stack may have felt Billy's theft of his Stetson obligated him to kill the man, but Hurt clearly thinks that's ridiculous.
Hurt allows Stack a moment of dignity on the gallows - “head way up high” - but gives no sign of regretting his demise. When Beck came to cover Hurt's version of Stack O'Lee for a 2001 tribute album, he drove this point home by changing “They was all glad to see him die” to “We were all glad to see him die”. On this reading, even the song's narrator is glad to see the back of him.
Some people argue that this we/they discrepancy should be seen as evidence of unconscious racism. Only the white singers, it's claimed, are prepared to join in the rejoicing at a black man's death. McCulloch and Hendrix raise this point in their graphic novel, only to dismiss it almost instantly (8). White singers, they argue, re-make Stack in their own image as the song proceeds, and if their Stack is a white man, then how can the “we” be racist?
My own view is that the choice of pronoun depends less on the singer's race than on where he's decided to place himself in the song. A performer who wants to cast himself as a participant in the story becomes part of the crowd watching Stack's execution, and so uses “we”. Someone preferring to remain a neutral narrator of the tale, watching it all from outside, would naturally opt for “they”.
It's also worth noting that the record of white singers' and black singers' pronoun use is far more jumbled than the racism theory suggests. Tennessee Ernie Ford, Pete Seegar and Ralph Stanley are all white, and yet all have recorded versions of the song saying “they killed him” and “they were glad to see him die”. Among black artists, both bluesman Sonny Terry and Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops have used “we” and even “I”. And what are we to make of versions like the Beck one mentioned above, which uses “they killed him” and “we were glad” in two consecutive lines?