Thursday, December 20, 2007

Merry Chistmas, Y'all

It’s time to turn the Bus toward home for Christmas. I hope y’all have enjoyed the trip this year as much as I have. The Bus will be parked until the New Year to allow your humble driver some time with family.

May you all find the peace of the holiday.

The Country Gentlemen - Christmas Time Back Home.mp3
from The Country Gentlemen: The Early Rebel Recordings (4 CD boxed set)
buy it here

Patty Loveless - Bluegrass, White Snow.mp3
from Patty Loveless’ Bluegrass & White Snow: A Mountain Christmas
more info:
buy it here

Squirrel Nut Zippers - Carolina Christmas.mp3
from Squirrel Nut Zippers Christmas Caravan
more info:
buy it here

Robin & Linda Williams - Shotgun Shells On A Christmas Tree.mp3
from Robin & Linda Williams’ The First Christmas Gift
more info:
buy it here

Merry Christmas, y’all

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Happy Holidays

This time of the year has been a season of celebration and festivities for over 4,000 years. For the people of the northern hemisphere the Winter Solstice was a turning point marking the reversal of long cold nights and short days.

The harvests had been gathered and stored for the winter. The beer and wine had completed its fermentation. This was also the time of year to slaughter livestock; for the meat would keep well in the cold temperatures and the smaller herds required less stored feed until the animals could return to their pastures in the spring. With the hard work of the harvest being done and with plenty of meat, beer, and wine it was time to relax and to celebrate.

December feasts and festivities were celebrated by nearly all cultures in the Northern Hemisphere. In Germanic & Scandinavian cultures a large log was brought in to provide light and warmth. This Yule log would burn for many days as the Yuletide celebrations were held. Apples and other fruits were tied to tree branches to encourage the return of spring. For many Northern cultures the winter was a celebration of fertility. The work was done, food and drink were plentiful, and while it was cold and dark outside, indoors was warm and cozy. No better time for a fertility festival!

The ancient Romans celebrated their sun god, Saturn, with a festival that began on the Winter Solstice and lasted through the dawning of the New Year. Roman celebrations included large feasts, exchanging of gifts called Strenae (meaning luck fruits) and decorations of garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles as a harbinger of spring. The Roman “Saturnalia” would begin on December 17th (birthday of Saturn) and concluded with a day of feasting on December 25th (Sol Invictus.) The festival was an invitation to stay in good spirit until the return of spring.

Evergreen plants were revered by many cultures as signs of the return of spring. The Celtic culture of the British Isles decorated their lodgings with green plants; particularly mistletoe and holly, for these were important symbols of fertility.

The Persians and the Babylonians celebrated a winter festival called the Sacaea. As part of the celebration, which began on December 25th, the slaves would become the masters in a temporary trading of places. This play-acting role reversal became a common theme amongst many Mediterranean cultures’ winter celebrations.

As Christianity spread across Europe, the church became upset at the continued merriment of the pagan winter celebrations. At the time, Easter was the most important day of the Christian year; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated by early Christians. To avoid persecution the early Roman Christians decked their homes with holly. Telesphorus, the second bishop of Rome (circa 130 AD), declared that the “Feast of the Nativity” should be celebrated during the Saturnalia period. By 432 AD the Christian celebration had spread to Egypt and as far north as England by the end of the sixth century.

The Christian celebration of Christmas more resembled the pagan festivals it was meant to replace. For nearly a thousand years the winter celebration of Christmas was a raucous, drunken, carnival-like festival.

In the early 17th century, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers changed the way Christmas was to be celebrated for generations to come. As part of their drive to rid England of decadence, the celebration of Christmas was cancelled. The English separatists, known as the “pilgrims”, that came to America were even stricter in their Puritan ways. In Puritan New England, Christmas was not even a holiday. In fact, a few non-Puritan settlers that did celebrate Christmas were fined. As a result, Christmas was actually outlawed in New England from 1659 to 1681.

After the American Revolution, English customs fell from favor and the wild celebrations of Christmas was halted. In the United States, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870, years after the Civil War had ended.

Christmas as we know it today was invented by the best-selling author Washington Irving. In his 1819 series of stories entitled The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent. Irving introduced a wealthy squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. The characters in Irving’s story enjoyed a warm and peaceful holiday despite their differences in rank and social status. The events and “traditions” that Irving described did not follow any celebration of Christmas anywhere but in his mind. One might say that Irving invented the “traditional” Christmas by implying that the events he wrote described true customs.

The holiday of Christmas that we celebrate today has been shaped by the large retailers and advertisers and bears no resemblance to the thousand years old traditional celebrations, but plays on our collective thoughts of tradition as presented to us by Washington Irving and Norman Rockwell.

However you choose to celebrate the season, I hope your's is filled with peace, joy, and love.

The Chenille Sisters - The All-Purpose Carol.mp3
from Chenille Sisters In The Christmas Spirit
more info:
buy it here

The Therapy Sisters - Happy Whatever You're Having.mp3
from The Therapy Sister’s Codependent Christmas
more info:
buy it here

Dar Williams - The Christians and the Pagans.mp3
from Dar Williams' Mortal City
more info:
buy it here

Trifolkal - 'Tis the Season.mp3
from Trifolkal’s (Singer/songwriters Laura Pole, Greg Trafidlo, & Neal Phillips) Songs of the Season
more info:
buy it here

Toot Sweet - Let the Good Guys Win.mp3
from Toot Sweet’s Celtic Christmas (import)
buy it here

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Away From Home

The Christmas season brings thoughts of friends and family but not everyone is able to spend the season with loved ones.

Today the Bus will be traveling far from home and down some lonely back roads. Christmas can be a lonely time for those far from friends and family. We all remember our first Christmas away from home as a young adult leaving the family home to begin our own journey. For some, including a few of my very good friends, this Christmas will be spent without a loved one for the first time in many years. The passing of a spouse or parent, the break-up of a marriage and family, or an empty house as children grow and move on, one can find themselves alone at Christmas time at any stage of life.

Perhaps no more lonely Christmas is there than those away from home and on duty. We wish the best for the soldiers around the globe and hope for their safe return.

Stan Rogers-First Christmas.mp3
One of the most moving of Christmas songs. Every one of us can relate to least one verse.
from the late, great Stan Rogers’ Between the Breaks...Live!
more info:
buy it here

John Prine - Christmas in Prison [Live].mp3
from John Prine’s A John Prine Christmas
more info:
buy it here

Loudon Wainwright III - Christmas Morning.mp3
A moving commentary on our world today. "Life goes on..."
from Bah Humbug: Alternative Christmas Album (import)
more info: Loudon Wainwright III
buy it here

Julie Sanderson - Christmas 1864.mp3
An especially poignant song here, as I live just across the river from Petersburg and work a stone’s throw from City Point. The sentiment is just as appropriate today.
from Julie Sanderson recorded for the benefit CD Holiday Feast, Vol. 2 (out-of-print)
more info about the heartfelt singer/songwriter Julie Sanderson:
more info about the charity Hungry for Music and their incredible CDs:

John McCutcheon - Christmas in the Trenches.mp3
John McCutcheon's song about the Christmas Truce of 1914 reminds us that the world was once a more civil place.
from John McCutcheon’s Winter Solstice
more info:
buy it here

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dancin' Merrily

There will be plenty of dancing around the Christmas tree and other embarrassing moments at the company Christmas party this year. That may be why many companies no longer hold the annual drunkfest with the bosses. I prefer to do my dancing in the aisle on the Bus with good friends, music, and drink.

Ain’t no bosses on the Bus, feel free to cut loose.

The Trail Band - Dancing 'Round the Christmas Tree.mp3
from The Trail Band’s Making Spirits Bright
more info:
buy it here

Chesapeake - Christmas Swing.mp3
from: Sugar Hill Records’ Tinsel Tunes
more info: Sugar Hill Records
buy it here

The Therapy Sisters - The Christmas Polka.mp3
from The Therapy Sister’s Codependent Christmas
more info:
buy it here

Charles Brown - Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.mp3
from: Alligator Records The Alligator Christmas Collection
more info:
buy it here

Point of Grace - Jingle Bell Rock.mp3
from Point of Grace’s A Christmas Story
more info:
buy it here

Lou Ann Barton - Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree.mp3
from Austin Rhythm & Blues Christmas
more Lou Ann Barton info:
buy it here

Sunday, December 16, 2007

On the Seventh Week of Christmas...

With a little more than a week to go, Christmas is finally just around the corner. The stores have been decorated with giant inflatable snowmen since the super-sized bags of Halloween candy were marked down. The radio began playing the same loop of novelty Christmas songs before the Thanksgiving turkey was cold. I swear if I hear those dogs barking “Jingle Bells” just one more time...

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Grinch or Scrooge, I enjoy the Holidays as much as anyone. I’d just prefer it didn’t start as soon the summer vacation season ends.

The Bus is once again headed down the backroads of Christmas County. No singing chipmunks or barking dogs on our journey, we’ll be far from the crowds at the mall and even farther from those repetitious radio standards. There’s hot buttered rum and eggnog for all, so pour yourself a drink and settle back.

Ann Reed - Christmas Songs.mp3
from Ann Reed’s Not Your Average Holiday
more info:
buy it here

Loudon Wainwright III - Suddenly It's Christmas.mp3
from Loudon Wainwright III’s Career Moves
more info:
buy it here

Trifolkal - 20th Century Christmas.mp3
from Trifolkal’s (Singer/songwriters Laura Pole, Greg Trafidlo, & Neal Phillips) Songs of the Season
more info:
buy it here

Sadly, Dan Fogelberg lost his battle with prostate cancer Sunday morning. According to his website, he died peacefully at home in Maine with his wife Jean at his side. He was only 56.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

RCA Victor no. 22-0099

With his percussive Barrelhouse piano and raucous vocals Piano Red’s music is good time music, for sure. William “Willie” Lee Perryman was born October 19, 1911 on a farm near Hampton, Georgia. His brother Rufus, 19 years older than Willie, had left home to make his living playing music before Willie was twelve years old. Their parents had bought Rufus a piano in hopes he would learn to play and make a more comfortable living as a musician rather than farming. Rufus performed under the name of “Speckled Red” a nickname given him as both boys were albino African-Americans with reddish-brown freckles.

After Rufus left home, Willie began banging on that old piano as he had seen his older brother do. By 1930 Willie was playing with other Georgia bluesmen such as Barbecue Bob and Curley Weaver at house parties and juke joints around Atlanta. Willie added some pop standards to his repertoire and by the mid 1930s he was playing for white audiences in the resort town of Brevard, North Carolina. In the mid-‘30s, he teamed up with Blind Willie McTell and the pair made their first recordings for the Vocolion label in Augusta, but the records were never released. While working with McTell, Willie Perryman began to bill himself as “Piano Red.”

Music was never his only means of support. Willie worked as an upholsterer during the week and played the piano on weekends. After parting ways with McTell, Piano Red performed at clubs on weekends and upholstering during the week. In 1950 he recorded his first solo outing for RCA Victor at the radio studios of WGST in Atlanta. That first record changed Piano Red’s life. The song’s he recorded that day were released by RCA Victor and almost instantly starting climbing the charts. It is rare enough for an artist to record a song that becomes a hit, but Piano Red struck gold with his very first release. And not just one song, but both songs on that first record, “Rockin’ with Red” and “Red’s Boogie” were National successes.

As I have mentioned earlier this week, our good friend Walt brought another stack of 78s from Cousin Wes’ outstanding collection to share with the riders on the Bus. I have been carefully transferring them to audio files all week. Tonight as I slipped the record from its jacket I was elated to find that first Piano Red recording, RCA Victor no. 22-0099.

Piano Red - Rockin' With Red.mp3

Piano Red - Red's Boogie.mp3

Y’all have a good weekend!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Last Minute Shopping

With less than two weeks of shopping left, I hope that all the riders on the Bus have been getting their share of good Christmas music. I don’t mean the dogs barking “Jingle Bells” or the overplayed standards programmed into the corporate playlists that have taken over our radios. I’d had my fill of that the day after Thanksgiving.

You folks know where to find the good stuff. Kat has been posting some great Christmas folk music to accompany her wonderful, reminiscing stories over at Keep the Coffee Coming. For more obscure seasonal offerings, there is nothing like a stop over at Big Rock Candy Mountain or hop up on Barstool Mountain to quench your thirst.

If you still have some shopping to do, or are looking to get yourself a little treat before the Holidays, be sure to check out some of our favorite independent music retailers.

Erica Wheeler and Peter Mulvey have new releases available on Signature Sounds.

Rounder Records has re-released Hazel Dickens’ classic It's Hard To Tell the Singer From The Song. Also, all of their 2007 releases and a few pre-release copies of upcoming 2008 CDs are on sale for $12.99.

One of my favorite labels for many years now is Waterbug Records. Their $5 Waterbug Sampler CDs are a great way to expose yourself (or a friend) to some of the most talented independent singer/songwriters. The latest sampler is free with an order for any full priced CD. Waterbug has been doing this for years and I consider it the best bargain anywhere.

Hightone Records has put together a 4 CD and 1 DVD set that comes with a 124 page book. Each CD is jam-packed with an assortment of cuts from great Hightone artists. The four CDs are divided by genre, Blues, Rock, Singer/songwriter, and Country. The DVD includes videos of Gary Stewart, Joe Ely, Rosie Flores, Dale Watson, and a host of others. The entire collection usually goes for about $60, but is on sale for $29.99.

Don’t forget to check out the deals at the other great retailers listed in the right panel. Give the gift of music and support these independent artist and the labels that produce them.

Marcia Ball - Christmas Fais Do Do.mp3

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Few "Storms are on the Ocean"

Last week rider Tip from Florida wrote to inquire about the old Carter Family song “Storms are on the Ocean” and to share a few covers that he had found. Tip and I have spent the better part of a week now, trading stories and information about the song, its origins and the many covers/versions we have found. I have begun to collect as many versions as I can find and to trace the song’s origin in preparation for a future post.

As I mentioned yesterday, I am busy this week transferring the latest stack of 78s from Walt’s Cousin Wes. I’ve also got several other projects underway to share with the riders on the Bus after the New Year. With all of this research, recording, and general tomfoolery going on this week, I’ve little time left for lengthy posts.

Here are a couple of fine examples of “Storms are on the Ocean” to whet the appetite.

Patty Kakac - Storms Are On the Ocean.mp3

Mae Robertson and Don Jackson - Storms Are on the Ocean.mp3

Patty Kakac - Heart of a Woman
Available at: CD Baby
Patty Kakac and Jodi Ritter are the rural Minnesota-based duo known as the Granary Girls. I am very impressed by what I have heard from this duo and will be in contact with them about posting some more of their wonderful music. This rendition of “Storms are on the Ocean” is from Patty Kakac’s CD entitled Heart of a Woman.

Mae Robertson - The Sun Upon the Lake Is Low
Available at: CD Baby
Mae Robertson is a renowned collector and singer of children’s lullabies and nursery songs. Her beautifully rich voice is perfectly suited to traditional folksong as well.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Cold Icy Ground

Lantern slide by John R. Connon (ca. 1910-1919)

Although the official start of winter is still a few weeks, away and already the first storms have given some parts of the country an early taste of winter’s fury. While here in the Piedmont we are experiencing shirt sleeve weather with temperatures in the mid-70s (24°C), the folks in the Midwest and Great Plains are chipping out from a heavy ice storm.

It will soon enough be time to put another log on the fire, pour a snifter of something to warm a body, and watch the beauty of a winter landscape through the picture window.

Bill Monroe - Footprints in the Snow.mp3

IIIrd Tyme Out - Snow Angel.mp3

Jody Strecher & Kate Brislin - Walking Through Your Town In The Snow.mp3

Molly O'Day - At The First Fall Of Snow.mp3

This last cut by Molly O’Day was one of the treasures loaned to us from our good friend Walt’s Cousin Wes. Walt was back in the mountains this past weekend and has brought us another stack of dusty wonders from Cousin Wes’ basement. I’ll be keeping the posts short this week as I transfer a dozen 78s and a very special, rare vinyl four record set that we will share next week.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Easin' Back to Work with Guitars

For those of us that must return to work Monday the weekends pass all too quickly. At this time of the year the weekends are often so filled with chores that little time is left to relax. So as we enter another work week let’s ease back into the daily grind with a few soothing guitar tunes.

Norman Blake - Down At Milow's House.mp3

Kenny Baker & Josh Graves - Kenny's Blues.mp3

Norman & Nancy Blake - OBC3.mp3

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Stagger Lee: The Story Continues

No doubt about it, “Stag” Lee Sheldon was a bad man, although probably not as bad as the legend that his dastardly deed spawned.

What makes the story of poor Billy Lyon’s murder worthy of such attention? Judging by the number of times that the song has been recorded and the incredible diversity of its popularity across just about every genre and style of American music, I’ve got to believe that there has to be something in the story that has universal appeal. The hero (or more appropriately, anti-hero) of the story is a vile, callous, murderer with absolutely no redeeming values. The story lacks the typical “good triumphs over evil” ending that concludes most murder ballads. In several versions, our anti-hero goes to Hell and even gives the Devil a hard time!

Author and radio producer, Tom Morgan, has kept a running tally of “Stagger Lee” songs. His complete list (available here) reveals the wide variety of musicians that have interpreted the story of “Stagger Lee.”

The story of “Stagger Lee” is just that – the story. As rider Jack pointed out in a comment, the tune is not a particularly interesting piece on its own. It is a fairly nondescript little melody by itself, but its simplicity allows each artist to interpret the song as they feel best suit the lyrics. The lyrics, the story of a callous, senseless murder, also allow for embellishment, as we have heard in the evolution and various interpretations.

No one knows the original composer of the song, but it would be safe to venture that it was written while the true life events were still fresh in memory. It is also pretty safe to say that every generation since 1895 has shaped the story to suit current styles, both musically and lyrically. It may be that the simplicity of the tune and the primeval aspect of the story are precisely the reason that this song has been recorded by over 200 artists representing just about every genre imaginable.

Today’s post will conclude our look at the story of “Stagger Lee”. It’s time for the Bus to head down the road to find the next story. I would love to be able to post all of the covers of “Stagger Lee” and its variants, but bandwidth and sanity would be in jeopardy with such a folly. Over the past week I have tried to post a small sampling of the diverse ways in which the story has been interpreted throughout the years. Today I’ve selected a few of the more contemporary versions of the song, from the 1960s right up to this year. Even in this small sample from a relatively short period there is an amazing variety of styles, interpretations, and lyrics.

Tommy Roe’s All-American clean cut pop version is followed by the early soul sounds of Wilson Pickett. The Grateful Dead give our song the jam band treatment in true Dead fashion. Samuel L. Jackson’s obscenity-filled rendition has introduced a new generation, raised on rap and hip hop, to the story. The UK-based Marseille Figs, a pop/post-punk outfit have done the same for their followers.

The story of Stagger Lee will live on for at least another generation.

Tommy Roe - Stagger Lee.mp3

Wilson Pickett - Stagger Lee.mp3

Grateful Dead - Stagger Lee.mp3

Pacific Gas & Electric - Staggolee.mp3

Samuel L. Jackson - Stack-O-Lee.mp3

Marseille Figs - Staggerlee.mp3

Thanks to riders, Chris and Tip for sharing a few tunes.

Y'all have a good weekend!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Stagger Lee Goes to the Islands

It may seem odd that a song about the murder of a gambler by a pimp in St. Louis would be of any interest in the tropical paradise of Hawaii, but once again we find that good music has no borders. Judging by the fact that I could only find instrumental versions of “Stagger Lee” done by Hawaiian artists, perhaps the story of Billy Lyons and Lee Shelton really wasn’t as appealing to the islanders as much as the tune was.

I found two stack key guitar versions; both entitled “Stack O’Lee,” in the collection on the Bus. King, Queen, Jack and Sol Hoopii perform our subject song with the traditional slide guitar style of the islands that we love here on the Bus.

For a few decades the world knew Cliff Edwards as Ukulele Ike, a vaudeville singer, musician, and actor. To those of us raised on Disney films he is known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket. For an earlier look at the seedier side of Ukulele Ike click here.

Cliff Edwards (aka Ukulele Ike) - Stack O'Lee - (Parts 1 and 2).mp3

Sol Hoopii - Stack O'Lee Blues.mp3

King, Queen, Jack - Stack-O-Lee .mp3

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Folkies Revive Stagger Lee

By the 1950s “Stagger Lee” had been sung by musicians far and wide for nearly sixty years. Our song was there as new musical genres were forming; jazz, rhythm & blues, rock ‘n’ roll. But the 1950s also brought a retrospective appreciation of the older styles. The Folk Revival started with the academics of the North and a curiosity for the nearly forgotten music of the Delta and Appalachian regions.

Performers such as Mississippi John Hurt were re-discovered by long-hair types in tweed jackets. For many of these artists, the opportunity to come out of retirement and play once again for an appreciative audience was more than they could have hoped for. In fact their new audiences were, in most cases, larger than they had ever played for and surely more profitable.

Interest in the nearly lost traditional music of Southern America spurred younger performers to explore these quaint and uniquely American styles. Groups such as the Journeymen, and the Kingston Trio found an eager audience.

Once again, “Stagger Lee” was adopted by yet another genre. The ballad qualities of “Stagger Lee” fit well within the realm of folk music.

Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, and Alek Stewart - Stackolee.mp3

The Journeymen - Stackolee.mp3

Doc and Merle Watson - Stack O' Lee.mp3

Down Home with Stagger Lee

We’ve often discussed the importance of the interaction between musicians of different racial and ethnic backgrounds on the development of American musical styles and “Stagger Lee” is a perfect example of the one of those songs that defies all of the stereotypical boundaries.

The early recordings of “Stagger Lee” that I posted at the beginning of this series included the Down Home Boys and Mississippi John Hurt, black musicians from the Delta, and Frank Hutchison, a white coal miner from West Virginia who played in the Delta style. But Hutchison wasn’t the only mountain musician to pick up on the unique appeal of “Stagger Lee”. The Fruit Jar Guzzlers were a string band from West Virginia that recorded for Paramount in the1920s. In 1928, one year after Frank Hutchison and John Hurt had recorded their versions; the Fruit Jar Guzzlers recorded theirs (“Stack-O-Lee”.) This is the first version that I could find played in a string band style. Notice that in the two short years since the Downhome Boys recorded the first version, the story has been embellished with new lyrics. That’s the Folk Process in action.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, “Stagger Lee” was revived in the 1950s by Archibald and Lloyd Price. The 1950s also brought about a renewed interest in traditional American music. I’ll have more on “Stagger Lee’s” treatment during the Folk Revival later, but one version, this one by the New Lost City Ramblers, is performed as a traditional Appalachian ballad. I imagine this version is very close to the style that would have been played on many front porches throughout the mountains.

In 1951, "Mr. Sixteen Tons", Tennessee Ernie Ford, recorded a swinging version of “Stack-O-Lee” complete with tinkling piano, snare drum, and backup singers, another testament to the versatility of this simple little song.

Fruit Jar Guzzlers - Stack-O-Lee.mp3

New Lost City Ramblers - Stackerlee.mp3

Tennessee Ernie Ford - Stack O Lee.mp3

Monday, December 03, 2007

Stagger Lee’s Return: Jazz/Blues/R&B

The story of Stagger Lee, originally sung in the late 1890s, and revived in the late 1920s, was not told again, at least on record, until a rolling piano player from New Orleans revived (and revised) the song in1950. Leon T. Gross, who performed under the simple name Archibald, added a few new twists in the story that made the song’s anti-hero (Stack A Lee, in this case) into a more vile person than previous versions.

Why the song faded from popularity for over twenty years is a bit of a mystery. My own speculation is that the world had plenty to concern itself with during the Depression, dust bowl, and WWII. By the 1950s the good times were back and R&B was one expression of those good times.

“Stagger Lee” is one of those rare songs that can easily be adapted to just about any genre or musical style. Over the next few days the Bus will be traveling through a few of the various styles in which “Stagger Lee” has been interpreted.

Let’s start with the third revival of the song in 1950, with jazz pianist Archibald and his influence on jazz, blues, and R&B artists.

Archibald - Stack A Lee.mp3

Lloyd Price - Stagger Lee.mp3

James Brown - Stagger Lee.mp3

Henry Gray - Stagger Lee.mp3

Fabulous Thunderbirds - Stagger Lee.mp3

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Murder of Billy Lyons:
Reopening the Case

In the scheme of things, the murder of twenty-five year old levee hand, Billy Lyons, could have been written off as just another unfortunate act of violence. But, for reasons unknown, that relatively insignificant barroom brawl in St. Louis in 1895 would become one of the most sung-about murders in American history.

I first posted about the many versions of “Stagger Lee” last January. (For the original post, click here.) That post drew quite a bit of interest, including a comment from writer, Derek McCulloch, author of Stagger Lee. McCulloch and illustrator, Shepherd Hendrix, have woven the historical facts of the event with close scrutiny of the song’s various versions, accompanied by wonderful artwork to create a thoroughly enjoyable book (available at

The story has been told in song for over eighty years and by an incredible variety of artists in a wide assortment of styles, genres, and even titles. I had intended to return to the subject of “Stagger Lee”, if only to look at some of the diverse ways that the story has been interpreted. Last week I got an email from a recent rider on the Bus inquiring about some of the versions that I had uncovered when I put that original post together. Chris told me that he was putting together a collection of the versions of “Stagger Lee” and offered a version that I was not familiar with. Chris’ inquiry and generous offer renewed my interest in the song.

As reported in THE ST. LOUIS GLOBE DEMOCRAT (1895) (see original post for full text), and in the various versions of the song, 'Stag' Lee Sheldon shot and killed Billy Lyons over a $5 Stetson hat. In these days of drive-by-shootings and other senseless violence we hardly notice the absurdity of the cause of Billy Lyons death, but in 1895 this must have seemed a trivial reason to take someone’s life. The banality of the excuse for murdering Billy coupled with the cold callousness of 'Stag' Lee actually committing the act may account for the song and its continued usage and popularity

I’ll leave the forensic psychology for someone qualified in such matters, but I will reopen the case to examine a few of the various versions that the song ahs taken on over the years. Let’s start at the beginning...

The first version of the song, that I am aware of, was recorded in Chicago in 1927 by two musicians from the Delta who recorded as The Downhome Boys. Several months later it was recorded by Furry Lewis (I am still searching for my copy, I know I have it on vinyl somewhere.) Also in 1927, West Virginia coal miner and musician, Frank Hutchison preserved his version on record. Two years later, in 1929, the soft voiced Mississippi John Hurt recorded his version, then for nearly twenty years the song was not heard on record again.

The Down Home Boys – (Original) Stack O'Lee Blues.mp3

Frank Hutchison - Stackalee.mp3

Mississippi John Hurt - Stack O'Lee Blues.mp3