Down Home with Stagger Lee
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.