Stagolee Shot Billy

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Overview

Although his story has been told countless times--by performers from Ma Rainey, Cab Calloway, and the Isley Brothers to Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, and Taj Mahal--no one seems to know who Stagolee really is. Stack Lee? Stagger Lee? He has gone by all these names in the ballad that has kept his exploits before us for over a century. Delving into a subculture of St. Louis known as "Deep Morgan," Cecil Brown emerges with the facts behind the legend to unfold the mystery of Stack Lee and the incident that led to murder in 1895.

How the legend grew is a story in itself, and Brown tracks it through variants of the song "Stack Lee"--from early ragtime versions of the '20s, to Mississippi John Hurt's rendition in the '30s, to John Lomax's 1940s prison versions, to interpretations by Lloyd Price, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett, right up to the hip-hop renderings of the '90s. Drawing upon the works of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, Brown describes the powerful influence of a legend bigger than literature, one whose transformation reflects changing views of black musical forms, and African Americans' altered attitudes toward black male identity, gender, and police brutality. This book takes you to the heart of America, into the soul and circumstances of a legend that has conveyed a painful and elusive truth about our culture.

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Editorial Reviews

Chronicle of Higher Education

In Stagolee Shot Billy...Brown revisits the archetypal story of "someone who was willing to defend himself if transgressed against, if his dignity was at stake." Songs about Stagolee have long been a staple of African-American music, with recordings by Ma Rainey, Duke Ellington, and Fats Domino...To analyze the legend, Mr. Brown draws on structuralist and formalist thinkers such as Mikhail Baktin, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Vladimir Propp...But where another scholar might explicate a few symbols and call it a day, Brown has pursued the tale to its origins—a bar fight in St. Louis in 1895, during which a saloonkeeper named Lee Shelton shot William Lyons when a friendly game of cards went wrong.
— Scott McLemee

Playboy

In a St. Louis tavern on Christmas night in 1895 Lee Shelton (a pimp also known as Stack Lee) killed William Lyons in a fight over a hat. There were other murders that night, but this one became the stuff of legend. Songs based on the event soon spread out of whorehouses and ragtime dives across the country. Within 40 years, Stagolee had evolved into a folk hero, a symbol of rebellion for black American males. With commendable scholarship and thoroughness, Brown shows how we got from the murder to the myth.
— Leopold Froehlich

Los Angeles Times Book Review

You don't have to know the ballad about Stagolee, the black anti-hero who shot and killed his old friend Billy over a hat in a bar one Christmas night in 1895 in Deep Morgan, the vice district of St. Louis, to enjoy Cecil Brown's telling of the story behind the song...Brown, who grew up on the myth in the 1950s and 60s on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, reconstructs the very night when Lee Shelton dressed like a pimp in St. Louis flats and a "high-roller, milk-white Stetson"...wandered into the Bill Curtis Saloon in the Bloody Third District. Brown's reconstruction of the bordello culture in St. Louis is reminiscent of fin de siècle Vienna, portraying a kind of hysteria that played out on the stage and in the streets.
— Susan Salter Reynolds

New York Times Book Review

In Stagolee Shot Billy, the novelist Cecil Brown tracks the history of the song "as a black oral narrative and the rich relationship it reveals between oral literature and social life." Along the way he has a lot to say about how music functions as a form of memory, advancing through the popular culture...Brown's industrious research begins at the primal event...In his reconstruction of the legal events that sent Shelton to jail, Brown shows how the black Tenderloin district functioned in white ward-heeling politics of the day...Brown also trains his lens on Stagolee as a mythical presence in literature...By surrounding the Stagolee figure in a constellation of ways, as part of folklore, music history, literary scholarship and culture studies, with a supporting cast of writers and scholars whose words are given fair and generous use, Brown puts on a good postmodern show.
— Jason Berry

Chronicle of Higher Education - Scott McLemee
In Stagolee Shot Billy...Brown revisits the archetypal story of "someone who was willing to defend himself if transgressed against, if his dignity was at stake." Songs about Stagolee have long been a staple of African-American music, with recordings by Ma Rainey, Duke Ellington, and Fats Domino...To analyze the legend, Mr. Brown draws on structuralist and formalist thinkers such as Mikhail Baktin, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Vladimir Propp...But where another scholar might explicate a few symbols and call it a day, Brown has pursued the tale to its origins--a bar fight in St. Louis in 1895, during which a saloonkeeper named Lee Shelton shot William Lyons when a friendly game of cards went wrong.
Playboy - Leopold Froehlich
In a St. Louis tavern on Christmas night in 1895 Lee Shelton (a pimp also known as Stack Lee) killed William Lyons in a fight over a hat. There were other murders that night, but this one became the stuff of legend. Songs based on the event soon spread out of whorehouses and ragtime dives across the country. Within 40 years, Stagolee had evolved into a folk hero, a symbol of rebellion for black American males. With commendable scholarship and thoroughness, Brown shows how we got from the murder to the myth.
Los Angeles Times Book Review - Susan Salter Reynolds
You don't have to know the ballad about Stagolee, the black anti-hero who shot and killed his old friend Billy over a hat in a bar one Christmas night in 1895 in Deep Morgan, the vice district of St. Louis, to enjoy Cecil Brown's telling of the story behind the song...Brown, who grew up on the myth in the 1950s and 60s on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, reconstructs the very night when Lee Shelton dressed like a pimp in St. Louis flats and a "high-roller, milk-white Stetson"...wandered into the Bill Curtis Saloon in the Bloody Third District. Brown's reconstruction of the bordello culture in St. Louis is reminiscent of fin de siècle Vienna, portraying a kind of hysteria that played out on the stage and in the streets.
New York Times Book Review - Jason Berry
In Stagolee Shot Billy, the novelist Cecil Brown tracks the history of the song "as a black oral narrative and the rich relationship it reveals between oral literature and social life." Along the way he has a lot to say about how music functions as a form of memory, advancing through the popular culture...Brown's industrious research begins at the primal event...In his reconstruction of the legal events that sent Shelton to jail, Brown shows how the black Tenderloin district functioned in white ward-heeling politics of the day...Brown also trains his lens on Stagolee as a mythical presence in literature...By surrounding the Stagolee figure in a constellation of ways, as part of folklore, music history, literary scholarship and culture studies, with a supporting cast of writers and scholars whose words are given fair and generous use, Brown puts on a good postmodern show.
Ishmael Reed
Hip-hop scholarship has become an overcrowded industry, yet few have delved into the roots of this international phenomenon. Cecil Brown traces the roots of the black-gangster aesthetic to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century bad-nigger ballads, the most prominent of which was 'Stagolee.' This outstanding scholarship is marked by the unique analytical approach that we have conic to expect from Cecil Brown.
Taj Mahal
This book sings like the sound beneath the song within the song about the song. Telling it like it 't - i - is! Like a literary griot (gree-oh !), Cecil Brown transfers this longenduring African-American song from oral tradition to the printed page. Along the way, lie places the song in the context of the times from which it sprang. The amount of artistry the book documents--touching all Americans but focusing on the African-American contribution, or wellspring-is formidable and awe-inspiring.
Williams College - David L. Smith
Stagolee tanks among the most important figures in African-American folklore--the quintessential bad man' in black folklore. Brown makes a very compelling case linking Stagolee to the historical figure named Lee Shelton."
Greil Marcus
An infinitely fascinating exploration of nearly all facets of the Stagolee ballad, the archetype, the countless tales surrounding both, and their passage through time.
University of Illinois - David R. Roediger
The story which went into the song, and the story of the song, required a big storyteller, willing to train on the fly in lots of disciplines, to do detective work, to make judgments, and to make startling connections. Brown writes learnedly and passionately on Stagolee and political infighting in a very particular St. Lotus time and place, as well as on hip-hop and long traditions of what Walter Benjamin called the 'destructive character.
Times Literary Supplement - Gerald Mangan
Stagolee Shot Billy provides a fascinating biography of the song ['Stagolee'], from its shadowy birth in the ragtime era to its afterlife in the age of hip-hop--an evolution, by way of innumerable variants and alternative readings, that shows how vividly a single item of oral culture can reflect changing times.
MOJO - Paul McGrath
This entertaining book is the first to rigorously explore [the song's] origins in the St. Louis gang underworld. Brown paints a rich picture of the incident, traces the song's virus-like spread from blues to ragtime to pop, and figuring that it still moves people because, like most potent ancient black ballads, it is stark reportage with no moralising. Stagger Lee is not condemned, so he is free to live on in every badass to follow.
The Wire - Ian Penman
[A] probing and prescient and staggeringly well researched study...The historical revelations here are consistently--and insistently--fascinating; the voices brought in as chorus to help Brown vamp into theoretical detour range from Walter Benjamin and Bob Dylan to James Baldwin and Schooly D.
Journal of American Folklore - David Diallo
Stagolee Shot Billy constitutes a most valuable examination of African American folklore and folkways. It offers extremely well-documented facts and a conscientious scholarly approach, while, like the narrative itself, being highly entertaining.
Popular Music and Society - Stanley Arnold
Stagolee Shot Billy is one of the finest works in the field of cultural studies. Brown provides the reader with a fascinating narrative and an innovative analysis. This book is a must for anyone interested in the intersection of race and popular music in the 20th century.
Times Literary Supplement

Stagolee Shot Billy provides a fascinating biography of the song ['Stagolee'], from its shadowy birth in the ragtime era to its afterlife in the age of hip-hop—an evolution, by way of innumerable variants and alternative readings, that shows how vividly a single item of oral culture can reflect changing times.
— Gerald Mangan

MOJO

This entertaining book is the first to rigorously explore [the song's] origins in the St. Louis gang underworld. Brown paints a rich picture of the incident, traces the song's virus-like spread from blues to ragtime to pop, and figuring that it still moves people because, like most potent ancient black ballads, it is stark reportage with no moralising. Stagger Lee is not condemned, so he is free to live on in every badass to follow.
— Paul McGrath

The Wire

[A] probing and prescient and staggeringly well researched study...The historical revelations here are consistently—and insistently—fascinating; the voices brought in as chorus to help Brown vamp into theoretical detour range from Walter Benjamin and Bob Dylan to James Baldwin and Schooly D.
— Ian Penman

Journal of American Folklore

Stagolee Shot Billy constitutes a most valuable examination of African American folklore and folkways. It offers extremely well-documented facts and a conscientious scholarly approach, while, like the narrative itself, being highly entertaining.
— David Diallo

Popular Music and Society

Stagolee Shot Billy is one of the finest works in the field of cultural studies. Brown provides the reader with a fascinating narrative and an innovative analysis. This book is a must for anyone interested in the intersection of race and popular music in the 20th century.

— Stanley Arnold

The Los Angeles Times
Like the song itself, Stagolee Shot Billy is not about a lone interpretation; rather, Brown methodically takes us through a range of iterations, layering the legend in a way that mirrors the oral tradition from which it evolved. — David L. Ulin
The New York Times
In Stagolee Shot Billy, the novelist Cecil Brown tracks the history of the song ''as a black oral narrative and the rich relationship it reveals between oral literature and social life.'' Along the way he has a lot to say about how music functions as a form of memory, advancing through the popular culture. ''Stagolee'' arose as a mythic ballad adopted by the earliest blues singers and even jazz instrumentalists like Sidney Bechet before Price's version in the heyday of R & B. The song has kept on moving since then, with various rock versions and rap offshoots. — Jason Berry
Publishers Weekly
In "Stagolee," one of history's best-known blues songs, a dispute between Billy Lyons and a "bad man" called Stagolee ends in a shooting; variations of the ballad have been recorded by hundreds of musicians, from Mississippi John Hurt and Champion Jack Dupree to Peggy Lee, Ike and Tina Turner, Bob Dylan and Nick Cave. But for all the song's incarnations, little is known definitively about its origins: Who was Stagolee-or Stacker Lee, or Stack-o-lee? Scholar and author Brown (The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger) sets out to answer that question by presenting Lee Shelton, a.k.a. "Stack Lee," a pimp who shot Billy Lyons in a barroom in 1895; probing the seamy St. Louis milieu that served as the murder's backdrop; and tracing the song's history through the decades-from the eight stanzas sent to music archivist John Lomax in 1910, through 1920s white "hillbilly" versions and 1940s prison renditions and up to its influence on present-day rap music. Yet the book is more than a musical history; it considers "Stagolee as a black oral narrative and the rich relationship it reveals between oral literature and social life." Brown addresses the legend's place in an evolving African-American consciousness and draws upon the works of luminaries like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison (he skillfully employs Freud, Levi-Strauss and Walter Benjamin as well). Brown's tone at times becomes dry and academic, and his occasional generalizations are jarring in such an otherwise thoughtful work. The book is intelligent and illuminating-and a smattering of illustrations livens it up-but it will likely be of more interest to serious musicologists and historians than casual blues fans. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Novelist and professor Brown (African American studies, Berkeley; The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger) delves into the historical and social underpinnings of the Stagolee myth, which has inspired numerous songs and shaped American culture. Tracing the source of the legend, he describes in detail the shooting and killing of bully Billy Lyons by flashy pimp Lee Shelton (a.k.a. Stagolee) for snatching his hat in a St. Louis bar in December 1895 and Shelton's subsequent trial and imprisonment. He links the incident to the swirl of corrupt St. Louis politics embodied in violent and warring black social clubs that controlled bootlegging, gambling, and a flourishing prostitution trade. Brown continues with the evolution and transmission of the Stagolee tale through the oral African American tradition and ragtime, blues, and rock'n'roll, showing the transformation of the myth to suit the purposes and social settings of the narrators. In a final section, the author explores the persistence of the Stagolee persona in American literature, 1960s radical black politics, and rap music. Thoroughly researched, fast moving, and well written, this is the first book to unearth the basis of the Stagolee legend (others mostly deal with its social implications) and will appeal to those interested in understanding American cultural history.-Dave Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674016262
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/30/2004
  • Pages: 306
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Cecil Brown is the author of The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger and Days Without Weather. He is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Tradition of Stagolee

I. STAGOLEE AND ST. LOUIS

1. Stagolee Shot Billy

2. Lee Shelton: The Man behind the Myth

3. That Bad Pimp of Old St. Louis: The Oral Poetry of the Late 1890s

4. "Poor Billy Lyons"

5. Narrative Events and Narrated Events

6. Stagolee and Politics

7. Under the Lid: The Underside of the Political Struggle

8. The Black Social Clubs

9. Hats and Nicknames: Symbolic Values

10. Ragtime and Stagolee

11. The Blues and Stagolee

II. THE THOUSAND FACES OF STAGOLEE

12. Jim Crow and Oral Narrative

13. Riverboat Rouster and Mean Mate

14. Work Camps, Hoboes, and Shack Bully Hollers

15. William Marion Reedy's White Outlaw

16. Cowboy Stagolee and Hillbilly Blues

17. Blueswomen: Stagolee Did Them Wrong

18. Bluesmen and Black Bad Man

19. On the Trail of Sinful Stagolee

20. Stagolee in a World Full of Trouble

21. From Rhythm and Blues to Rock and Roll: "I Heard My Bulldog Bark"

22. The Toast: Bad Black Hero of the Black Revolution

23. Folklore/Poplore: Bob Dylan's Stagolee

III. MAMMY-MADE: STAGOLEE AND AMERICAN IDENTITY

24. The "Bad Nigger" Trope in American Literature

25. James Baldwin's "Staggerlee Wonders"

26. Stagolee as Cultural and Political Hero

27. Stagolee and Modernism

Notes

Bibliography

Index

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