Tuesday, December 04, 2007

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


Anonymous Richard said...

Ed, I. Am. Amazed. Tennessee Ernie ... whoa. Much as I like ol' Ernie, this version is, oh, let's say, 'too cute by half' ... that tinkly little piano and the Broadway-quality chorus behind that voice just seem to be a production mismatch of Biblical proportions ... But, I guess every artist needs the occasional 'potboiler' ...

Now, the Fruit Jar Drinkers ... at least that's how I've always known 'em ... this is the same folks that were with Gibb Tanner, right ... ? Did Dave Macon and the Skillet Lickers do a version too ... ? I'd love to hear Ralph Stanley and them Clinch Mountain Boys do this in the manner of 'O, Death' ... So many choices, so little time ...

December 05, 2007 12:31 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Richard, I have to agree with your assessment of TN Ernie Ford’s version. I figure this watered-down rendition was the product of an overbearing marketing director or record producer.

You may want to hold off on that next drink, Richard. You seem to have thrown a handful of old time musicians into the blender. The Fruit Jar Guzzlers were Cleve Chaffin and a couple of guys named Stevens and Bolar. The Guzzlers were from West Virginia and recorded 14 sides in 1928. They had no connection to Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers or the similarly named bands of Uncle Dave Macon and the Fruit Jar Drinkers or G. W. Wilkerson and his Fruit Jar Drinkers.

December 06, 2007 7:47 PM  

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