Friday, February 12, 2016

Book: Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix (Image Comics, 2006)

Stagger Lee, Staggerlee, Stack-O-Lee, whatever his name may be, he has become one of the most notorious anti-heroes in music, from ragtime to blues, folk, rock and even hip-hop, that bad man Stagger Lee continues to hold a grip on our imagination. This graphic novel looks at the Stagger Lee legend through multiple narratives: trying as best as possible to reconstruct the crime and trials that followed; as well as looking at how that crime may had turned into a song and how that song may have exploded and gone viral when radios and telephones were barely in the research and development stage. This much is truly known: on Christmas Eve 1895 in St. Louis, Missouri; "Stack" Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons in a saloon after an argument over his Stetson hat. Lyons died shortly thereafter and Shelton was sent to jail. Political machinations and the courting of the black vote by various St.Louis political machines saved Shelton from the gallows and sent him to prison. That's where the historical record ends and conjecture begins. It wasn't too long later that variations of the Stagger Lee songs began to appear before the turn of the century. The recorded pre-war version was by Ma Rainey (with Louis Armstrong) and the most widely known by Mississippi John Hurt. After the war, it was a number one hit by Lloyd Price, and recorded by Bob Dylan, The Black Keys and teased by The Clash. McCulloch makes a case for the original "version zero" of the song being developed in St. Louis not long after the crime and then being spread up and down the Mississippi River and Delta as ragtime musicians took jobs on riverboats and itinerant musicians crossed the south on foot or on the rails. As the musicians traveled and passed down the song the names deviated, plot twists were added or subtracted but it in the end it was always about that bad bad man Stagger Lee. McCulloch does the best he can with the scant historical record, taking artistic license with much of the musical beginnings of the song which are unknown, but making clear demarcation between his theories and the chapter headings where he talks about the historical record of the crime, politics and music of the era. This is a fascinating piece of work and definitely worthwhile for fans of the blues or American history. Stagger Lee -

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