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Stagger Lee: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Less than two years after that story appeared, Shakur was shot dead. He was leaving September 1996's Mike Tyson/Bruce Seldon fight in Las Vegas when a car pulled up next to his on the street and pumped 13 rounds inside. No-one's ever been caught for the crime, but police believe members of Los Angeles' Southside Crips were responsible. Biggie Smalls, the LA rapper who Shakur had always believed was behind the New York shooting, was killed in a drive-by six months later.

Each successive generation darkens the song and casts aside another scrap of what pity remains

We're still waiting for the definitive gangsta rap take on Stag's own story, but that's not to say that rap has ignored him altogether. A St Petersburg rock combo called Billy's Band recently produced a rap of Nick Cave's Stagger Lee. It's full of thunderous drums and rapped with a strong Russian accent. “This is the way things are going in the 'hood,” singer Billy Novik warns us. “It's just no damn good, hanging out in the 'hood”. No doubt today's gangster-ridden Russia can match anything thrown up by St Louis in 1895, so perhaps this version is less of a cultural oddity than it seems.
We've come a long way from Mississippi John Hurt's sober and saddened account of the damage Stagger Lee does to those around him. Each successive generation that takes on the song has darkened it, stepped a little more keenly into the killer's shoes and cast aside aside another scrap of whatever pity remains for Billy.
But, for Cave, it's the sheer sadism of versions like his that makes them so exhilarating. “What I like about it is that Stagger Lee's atrocious behaviour has nothing to do with anything but flat-out meanness,” he told Mojo. “I like the way the simple, almost nave, traditional murder ballad has gradually become a vehicle that can happily accommodate the most twisted acts of deranged machismo. Just like Stagger Lee himself, there seems to be no limits to how evil this song can become.”

For more on Stagger Lee, please go to this Amazon Kindle page (US / UK). The version of my essay there adds an exclusive interview with The Bad Seeds' Mick Harvey, who discusses his role in recording Nick Cave's apocalyptic 1996 rendition of the song. The price is just 1.49 ($1.85 in US). Amazon has a free app allowing its Kindle titles to also be read on smartphones, tablets and computers.

1: Physical Growth of the City of St Louis,
2: A Book About Myself, by Theodore Dreiser (Constable, 1929).
3: St Louis Post-Dispatch, 21/2/1891.
4: Stagolee Shot Billy, by Cecil Brown (Harvard University Press, 2003). Brown's book remains the definitive history of Stagger Lee, and is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the song.
5: Memphis Down in Dixie, by Shields McIlwaine (EP Dutton, 1948).
6: Original Stack O'Lee Blues, by Long Cleve Reed & Little Harvey Hull - The Down Home Boys. (Black Patti, 1927).
7: Stack O'Lee, by Mississippi John Hurt (Okeh, 1928).
8. Stagger Lee, by Derek McCulloch & Shepherd Hendrix (Image Comics 1996).
9: St Louis Globe-Democrat, 12/9/1902.
10: St Louis Star-Sayings, 29/12/1895.
11: St Louis Post Dispatch, 17/3/1911.
12: St Louis Globe-Democrat, 28/12/1895.
13: St Louis Globe-Democrat, 14/7/1896.
14: Badman Stackolee, by The Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group [Trad. Arr: McDevitt] (Oriole, 1957).
15: Stagger Lee, by Lloyd Price [Lloyd Price & Harold Logan] (HMV, 1959).
16: The Comics Journal, February 2003.
17: NME, 15/12/1979.
18: Wrong 'Em Boyo, by The Clash [Clive Alphanso, MCPS] (CBS, 1979).
19: Tragedy in Ragtime: Black Folktales From St Louis, by John R. David. (St Louis University, 1976).
20: Stack-O-Lee, by Tennessee Ernie Ford [Trad. Arr: Joe “Fingers” Carr] (Capitol, 1950).
21: Stack-A-Lee, by Dr John [Trad. Arr: Archibald] (Atlantic, 1972).
22: “A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads and Traditions of the People”, by BA Botkin (New York, 1945).
23: Life: The Lore and Folk Poetry of the Black Hustler, by Dennis Wepman (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976).
24: Mojo, January 1996.
25: Nuthin' But A “G” Thang, by Eithne Quinn (Columbia University Press, 2004).
26: Mystery Train, by Greil Marcus (Faber & Faber, 1975).
27: NME, 17/12/1994.

Women dressed in red and why a bulldog barks

Many versions of Stagger Lee throw up intriguing little puzzles which we can't hope to definitively solve today. The New Orleans strand, for example, often adds the detail that the women mourning Stag's death come “dressed in red”. Both Archibald and Dr John use this line in their versions.
      One theory insists that this reflects an old African funeral custom, which dictated that mourning clothes should be the colour of blood. Another maintains that the line is imported from another St Louis murder ballad called Duncan & Brady, which relates the shooting of a famously strict lawman in the town.
     Brady, the lawman in question, supposedly cracked down on St Louis' prostitutes, banning them from wearing the red dresses that advertised their trade. In the song, he's shot dead by a black store-owner he's been harassing. When the girls hear this news, they celebrate by digging out their red dresses again and strutting round town in them to celebrate.
     When transferred to Stagger Lee, the line's context suggests they've dressed this way as an act of solidarity with their favourite dead pimp. Frankie & Johnny's Frankie Baker wears red in her ballad too, which early listeners may have recognised as signifying that she was also a prostitute.
     The barking bulldog which shows up in Lloyd Price's version has sparked rival theories too. Some believe the bulldog represents Billy's soul as it's torn from his body in a violent death. Others point out that a popular revolver in the 1890s was nick-named “the bulldog” and claim it's therefore a handgun we hear barking in the song.
     The British Bulldog - actually a Webley - was originally made for the British army in 1878, but was quickly copied by gun-makers all over Europe and the US. Its two-and-a-half-inch barrel was short enough for the gun to be slipped in a coat pocket and carried around in secret (28). Charles Guiteau took advantage of this fact in 1881, when he used his own Bulldog to assassinate US President James Garfield.
     The British army contract ensured these guns were distributed all over the world, so they would have reached St Louis in plenty of time for Shelton to use one in 1895. The American copies, made by Forehand & Wadsworth, sold for as little as $5. It's a pleasing co-incidence that the guns used the same .44 or .45 calibre ammunition which Stag is often said to prefer.