Friday, October 02, 2009

Stagger Lee

You learn something new every day. Well, at least I do.

When I lived in Toronto a million years ago, I used to go to this coffee house (the name escapes me) where they had musicians playing. I'd go there by myself with my sketchbook and do pen & ink drawings while I listened to music. Stuff like this:

There was a piano player who I got to know a little - I believe his name was Scott and I think he had toured with Aerosmith. And if I remember correctly, he was my first introduction to the old blues song, Stagger Lee. Whenever he played, it was the song I waited for...he had a great version of it. Although at the time it was the only one I'd heard. I also had no idea where the song originated nor what it meant.

Flash forward a whole bunch of years to tonight. I went to an opening of a photography exhibit of pictures taken by Gus Van Sant from his book, 108 Portraits.

Most of the photographs in the exhibit were photographs taken during casting sessions. And they had white cards under them with information about the, who they were, movies they'd been in, etc. If you look on the right of the photo above there's a framed photo of a black man...the photo I was most drawn to. Here's a close-up of it...

The white card underneath had only two words...Stagger Lee. I instantly thought of the song I had heard so many moons ago. Then I got curious. Who was this guy in the picture? Who the hell is Stagger Lee? Obviously, I had never paid enough attention to the lyrics of the song as written by Lloyd Price in 1959...

The night was clear, and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumblin' down. . .

I was standin' on the corner
When I heard my bull dog bark.
He was barkin' at the two men
Who were gamblin' in the dark.

It was Stagger Lee and Billy,
Two men who gambled late.
Stagger lee threw a seven,
Billy swore that he threw eight.

"Stagger Lee," said Billy,
"I can't let you go with that.
"You have won all my money,
"And my brand-new Stetson hat."

Stagger Lee went home
And he got his .44.
He said, "I'm goin' to the ballroom
"Just to pay that debt I owe."

Go, Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee went to the ballroom
And he strolled across the ballroom floor.
He said "You did me wrong, Billy."
And he pulled his .44.

"Stagger Lee," said Billy,
"Oh, please don't take my life!
"I've got three hungry children,
"And a very sickly wife."

Stagger Lee shot Billy
Oh, he shot that poor boy so hard
That a bullet went through Billy
And broke the bartender's bar.

Go, Stagger Lee, go, Stagger Lee!
Go, Stagger Lee, go, Stagger Lee!

Or the original definitive version of the song was by Mississippi John Hurt recorded in 1928 and title Stagolee:

Police officer, how can it be
You arrest everybody but cruel Stagolee
That bad man
Cruel Stagolee

Billy Linus told Stagolee
"Please don't take my life
I've got two little children
And a loving wife"
That bad man
Cruel Stagolee

"Do I care about your two babes
Or your loving wife?
You done took my Stetson hat
I'm bound to take your life"
That bad man
Cruel Stagolee

Stagolee stood on the gallows,
Head held high
Twelve o'clock they killed him
We were all glad to see him die
That bad man
Cruel Stagolee

Turns out Stagger Lee was a real person... a convicted murderer named Lee Shelton.

[From wikipedia] A story appearing in the St. Louis, Missouri Globe-Democrat in 1895 read:
William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o'clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Shelton, a carriage driver. Lyons and Shelton were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Shelton's hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Shelton withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor Shelton took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Shelton is also known as 'Stagger' Lee.

And this only gets curiouser. Stagger Lee was born in 1865 and died in prison from tuberculosis in 1912. Obviously, Gus Van Sant did not shoot a picture of Stagger Lee. So, who is the person in the photograph taken by Gus Van Sant that he titled Stagger Lee?


While you're figuring that out for me have a listen to the Isley Brothers version of Stagger Lee...

Oh, I forgot to mention...they had the Koji Truck at the opening. If you don't know what it is google it. I had my first taste without having to wait in their usual three-hour line. Yum. Yum. Yum.

1 comment:

Steve B said...

Kinda looks like Richard Pryor to me.