Original Stagger Lee Essay


Stagger Lee:  The Story of the Black Badman, the Stetson Hat, and the Ultimate Rock and Roll Record
Copyright © 2002-2009
by James P. Hauser except where otherwise noted.  All rights reserved.

Part 1: The Legend and the Record

The legend of Stagger Lee is one of the most important and enduring stories from American folklore. Although it has had some popularity with the white community, it is a story that comes from the African-American oral tradition. There are many different versions of the tale, but here is the general storyline.  Stagger Lee (also known as Stagolee, Stackerlee, Stackalee etc.) gets into a dispute with a man named Billy DeLyon (also known as Billy the Lion or  Billy Lyons) after losing his Stetson hat to Billy while gambling.  Stagger Lee pulls a gun (sometimes identified as a .45, other times as a "smokeless .44") on Billy who then pleads to be spared for the sake of his wife and children.  Showing no compassion at all, Stagger Lee cold-bloodedly shoots and kills his opponent.  In the classic older musical recordings of the legend, the authorities are too frightened of the killer to arrest him for his crime.  But, in many versions of the tale, he is eventually brought to justice and executed.  In certain tellings of the story, Stagger Lee is sent to hell after he is executed or killed, but is so "bad" that he takes control of the devil's kingdom and turns it into his own badman's paradise.

Stagger Lee's myth is kept alive today most noticeably in our music.  There are easily over one hundred recordings of this song under various titles such as "Stagger Lee", "Stagolee", "Stack O' Lee Blues", "Billy Lyons and Stack O' Lee", many of them done by famous blues, folk, and rock musicians.  The song is most popular today with the rock audience.  Bob Dylan, Huey Lewis, and Beck have all recorded various versions of it within the last ten years.  But the two most important and most well-known versions of the song--Mississippi John Hurt's "Stack O' Lee Blues" and Lloyd Price's  "Stagger Lee"--were recorded by black men.  Hurt's version, recorded in 1928, is a classic early version of the song in which justice prevails as Stagger Lee is punished for his crime.  Price's recording,  from the late 1950s, is a classic modern rock 'n' roll retelling of the legend.  It is, in a certain sense, the polar opposite of Hurt's because Stagger Lee is not punished for the murder of Billy DeLyon, he is celebrated for it.  At least that is what Price's record appears to be if the lyrics and music are taken at face value.  But could it be that there was something deeper that was going on with the record than simply celebrating the legend of a badman? Let's take a closer look.

By looking at certain changes in the myth of Stagger Lee as recorded in song between 1928 and1958, and by considering these changes in relation to what was going on in American history during this stretch of time, you can see a major change in the theme of the tale and in its meaning to African Americans.  The 1928 version by John Hurt and most other early recordings characterize Stagger Lee as a cruel, ruthless killer.  Greil Marcus, who wrote extensively about the myth of Stagger Lee in his critically acclaimed rock and roll book Mystery Train, described Hurt's version of the story as "cautionary". Hurt may have been issuing a warning to stay away from Stagger Lee because he was pure trouble.  But he may also have been saying to his fellow African Americans that  "ya gotta play it cool, or else you'll end up in jail--or worse".  In other words, he could have been warning the African American community to not let the white man's oppression turn its children into bitter, angry young black men.  But thirty years after Hurt's recording, Lloyd Price recorded a version of the song which, at least on the surface, seemed to celebrate the murderous exploits of such an angry young black man.  Why the drastic reversal?  The answer may be seen by looking at the era in which Price's recording was made.

Lloyd Price released his version of Stagger Lee in 1958, in the early part of America's civil rights struggle.  For African Americans, the conflict between Stagger Lee and Billy DeLyon may have become symbolic of the black man's struggle for equality with whites.  The most important theme of this essay is to show how this struggle was reflected in Price's recording.  (The extraordinary way in which Price's record invoked the fight for black freedom will be explained shortly.)  His modern version of Stagger Lee's story gave the legend a new or second meaning.  It is not clear whether this double-meaning was something which was created intentionally by Price, but there is plenty of evidence showing that at least some African Americans saw Stagger Lee as a black freedom fighter.  Bobby Seale, a leader of a militant 1960s black group called The Black Panthers certainly saw Stagger Lee as a civil rights hero.  He modeled himself after the legend and he also named his son after him.  And in a 1970 jailhouse interview (excerpted in Mystery Train) Seale names four militant civil rights activists as Stagger Lee figures--himself, Malcolm X, and fellow Black Panthers Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver.

Another civil rights connection is made by the great black author James Baldwin who, in his forward to Bobby Seale's autobiography, points out that "an anonymous black woman" (Rosa Parks) was instrumental in helping Stagger Lee to achieve manhood.  In his forward, he refers to Stagger Lee as a "black folk hero" (the badman's legend so captured Baldwin's imagination that he wrote a poem titled "Staggerlee Wonders" and he even started a novel about him) and certainly he must have seen Rosa Parks's defiant act of civil disobedience as a heroic Stagger Lee-like feat.  To those who tried to belittle her act of courage by claiming that the only reason she refused to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back of the bus was that she was too tired, Baldwin certainly must have responded by assuring them that during that particular incident Rosa Parks was--in her determination and resolve--the toughest and ba-a-a-a-dest person on the planet.

There is further evidence of Stagger Lee's civil rights era change in status from badman to champion for black freedom in the 1969 book Black Folktales from Julius Lester. Lester, an African-American writer and folk singer gives a very prominent black versus white dimension to his version of the legend.  He does this in several ways.  First, he gives the character of Billy DeLyon some qualities that could influence one to see him as a white man. (Traditionally, blacks saw both Billy and Stagger Lee as black men.)  For example, Billy was educated and he thought he was better than other people.  Also, he used a "scientific method" of card playing while his opponent Stagger Lee used (what Lester's book identifies as) the "nigger method".  A second way that the author gives the legend a theme of black versus white is in the actions of the fearful sheriff.  He aligns himself with the Ku Klux Klan in order to arrest Stagger Lee for his crime.  Finally, the division between blacks and whites also appears after Stagger Lee dies, as he finds that all the white folks are in heaven and all the blacks are in hell.

In continuing to examine Stagger Lee as a hero in the black man's struggle for equality, let's return to Lloyd Price's recording of "Stagger Lee".  Although, on the surface, the record does not appear to have a black versus white theme, it does contain what might be a clue for the listener--especially an African-American listener--to see the song in this light. That clue lies in the extraordinary introduction, an introduction which originated with this particular recording of the Stagger Lee legend. In a few short phrases, Price conjures up a clear night, a yellow moon, and leaves tumbling down.  You could call it an incantation.  Then all hell breaks loose as seven quick horn blasts (dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah  dah) shatter the calm.  This introduction evokes another song--a slave spiritual titled "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho"--in several ways.   For example, the line that completes the intro to Price's record "and the leaves came tumbling down" echoes the spiritual's line "and the walls came tumbling down".  This could be explained away as a simple coincidence, but there are a whole string of interesting "coincidences" between these two songs which will be discussed in just a moment. 

But for now, let's look at the significance of this spiritual.  It deals with a Bible story about a battle at Jericho in which God brought down the city's walls upon the sounding of trumpets and the shouting of a battle cry.  To African-Americans, "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" had a special meaning in that this battle was symbolic of the fight to end slavery (Notes 1 and 2).   As Price's record was released in 1958 during the early stages of the civil rights struggle, a black man hearing the connection between the two songs could interpret "Stagger Lee's" tumbling down of leaves as symbolic of the walls of segregation tumbling down.  If this writer--a white man who has only heard this particular spiritual a handful of times--made the connection, there must have been many African-Americans--especially those that had regularly sung this popular spiritual in church--who also made this connection while the record was climbing the pop and R&B charts in the late 1950s. And it follows logically that to many of these African Americans, Stagger Lee's struggle with Billy DeLyon must have symbolized the black man's struggle for liberation from white oppression.

Now that the significance of a connection between Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" and "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" has been established, let's continue to explore the links between the two songs.  First of all, both of them are quite rousing songs.  Each creates a celebratory mood, and this supports the idea that they may be interpreted as being about liberation--"Joshua Fit the Battle" celebrates liberation from slavery and "Stagger Lee" may be seen as celebrating release from white oppression, especially the oppression of the Jim Crow south.  As indicated earlier, the seven horn blasts in Price's record transform the calm of the introduction into a wild, rollicking, barrage of sound.  Again, this could be heard by some people as a musical representation of  the sound of walls tumbling down.   The seven horn blasts from the record tie in with the Biblical story of Jericho (from chapter six of the book of Joshua) in two ways. First of all, God brings down the walls of the city upon the sounding of  horns or trumpets.  Second, the number seven appears throughout the Bible story--seven trumpets of rams' horns were blown by seven priests after circling the city seven times on the seventh day (Note 3). Another link between the record "Stagger Lee" and the Bible story can be found in that the back-up singers shout as they join in with later sets of horn blasts; this parallels the Bible story in that the people who were gathered around Jericho shouted after hearing the trumpet blasts. 

And here are several more connections between the two songs.  The yellow moon that Price sings about in the introduction to "Stagger Lee" creates a link to the black spiritual in that the city of Jericho was named after the moon.  Jericho's name comes from the Hebrew word "yerach" which signifies the moon or the monthly lunar cycle.   It also means "to be yellow".  (Note 4)  It is also interesting to note that, in the lyrics to "Stagger Lee", the line about the leaves tumbling down is immediately preceded by a line describing the moon as yellow, while, in "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho", the line about the walls tumbling down is immediately preceded by a line containing the word "Jericho".  Lastly, it might be interesting to note a parallel between Stagger Lee and the Biblical hero Joshua.  Stagger Lee was a ruthless man, showing no mercy to Billy DeLyon as he pleaded for his life to be spared for the sake of his wife and children.  Similarly, Joshua was absolutely ruthless in conquering Jericho, destroying every man, woman, child, and animal in the city (as recorded in Joshua chapter 6 verse 21).

Now that I have discussed this set of connections between Price's "Stagger Lee" and both "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and the Bible story of Jericho, let's look at how amazingly well they fit together on Price's record.  The beginning of the record is calm as Price sings about the yellow moon on a clear night; this represents the city of Jericho.  In the very next line, he sings about the leaves tumbling down, which exactly matches the line about Jericho's walls tumbling down (except for the substitution of the word "leaves" for "walls") in "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho".   Continuing on with the line about leaves tumbling down, immediately after the word "down" horn blasts break the calm, symbolizing the horns that were sounded to bring down the walls of Jericho.  This first set of horn blasts includes a total of seven blasts, and this number appears throughout the Bible story about the Battle of Jericho.  The second set of horn blasts are accompanied by the voices of the backup singers; this matches what happened in the Bible story as Joshua's people began to shout after hearing the horns.  

While the discussion above presents what might be just an interesting set of coincidental connections between Price's  recording of "Stagger Lee"  and the song "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho," I believe that one particular connection might be more than just a coincidence.   I believe that Price consciously or subconsciously invoked “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” with the lyric about the leaves tumbling down, a lyric which he originated and added to “Stagger Lee's" introduction.  It seems less likely that he invoked it consciously, because, if this were the case, he probably would have revealed it to the music world by now. But is it possible that it was done subconsciously?   Let's examine this possibility more closely.  

It has often been reported that Price got his start in singing by joining a church choir and that his mother also was a gospel singer, but according to an article in the September/October 1999 issue of Living Blues magazine, Price has stated that he never sang in church. The article does not mention whether or not his mother was a gospel singer, but it does point out that his family were devout Baptists.  Therefore, even if  he and his mother never sang in church, he must have been familiar with the popular "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" through his attendance of church services.  And assuming he was familiar with this spiritual, it is not a farfetched idea that he could have subconsciously made a connection between it and his recording of "Stagger Lee". 

This kind of thing can certainly happen, and it actually did happen to writer Ray Bradbury.  In an afterword to his science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451, he pointed out that years after he had written this story about a society in which books were illegal he realized that he had subconsciously given the name of a paper company, Montag, to the story's principal character and the name of a pencil company, Faber, to another main character.  (Although Bradbury did not mention it, Faber is also the name of a British book publisher.)  It took Bradbury over 30 years to come to this realization.  Lloyd Price recorded "Stagger Lee" almost 45 years ago, and he may still not be aware of the possibility that his subconscious mind guided him to create a link between that record and the old spiritual.  (Note 5)

Much of the discussion in this essay focuses on symbolism, and now might be an appropriate time to discuss the importance of symbolism and  double-meanings or codes in African American music.  Secret codes were important to the slaves because it was a covert way of communicating with each other about things that they wanted to keep from the slaveholders.  For example, it is believed that the spiritual "Steal Away" was used by slaves to arrange secret meetings in preparation for the revolt known as Nat Turner's Rebellion.  As another example, slaves would sing the spiritual "Wade in the Water" to signal to an escaped comrade to take to the water because the dogs had been put on his trail.  Upon hearing the song, slaves on neighboring plantations would take it up in order to forward  the message to the man running off to freedom.  The use of secret codes was not limited to music.  As documented in Jacqueline Tobin's book Hidden in Plain View, special symbols or designs were placed in quilts which served as secret codes to runaway slaves.  The quilts were hung outside of houses along the route of the Underground Railroad to indicate that the home was a safe haven for runaways working their way north to freedom.

After the end of slavery, African Americans continued to give double or hidden meanings to their music, including the blues.  Bluesman Brownie McGhee, in an interview in Lawrence N. Redd's Rock Is Rhythm and Blues, made the point that when he sings a song about his woman doing him wrong, it is the white man (not his woman) that he is really singing about.  Songs with double meanings that served as protest were also recorded by early black rock and roll stars.  Evidence of this can be found in rock literature which is sprinkled with writings discussing the idea that Chuck Berry's song "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" was code for Brown-Skinned Handsome Man, and that when Bo Diddley sang "I'm a Man" he was really saying to white America, "Hey, don't call me boy".

Much of the rest of this essay will take the ideas that have already been discussed and explore them more fully.  In particular, it will examine how Stagger Lee's legend changed--and how its meaning to African-Americans may have changed--over time, and how these changes were reflected in musical recordings about the legend.  In doing this, we will see how the legend of Stagger Lee evolved from that of a badman to a champion for black rights.  To set the stage for my discussion of the meaning of Stagger Lee's legend to African-Americans, I will first look at how the law was an extremely oppressive force to blacks living in the Jim Crow south and how this was reflected in the blues music which they created.  This essay will also take a detailed look at the Stetson hat and how the conflict over the Stetson in the song "Stagger Lee" may have come to symbolize the African-American struggle for civil rights and freedom.  Towards the end of this paper, I will present an explanation of why I consider Lloyd Price's recording of "Stagger Lee" to be the ultimate expression of the rock and roll form.  Then I will wrap things up with a discussion of why Stagger Lee's story is alive, well, and still relevant as we begin the 21st century.
Part 2 is below following the notes to Part 1.

Note 1

 Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer indicates, in his liner notes to 1991's 2-CD set Mahalia Jackson: Gospels, Spirituals and Hymns (Columbia / Legacy C2K 47083), that the Bible story of the battle of Jericho was symbolic of the abolitionists' fight to end slavery and of the intervention of God in bringing slavery to an end (also see Note 2).  Since trumpets triggered the fall of Jericho's walls, the sound of trumpets and lyrics referencing trumpets were both also seen as signifying the liberation of slaves.  For example, Dr. Boyer points out (in these same liner notes) that the angel Gabriel's sounding of the trumpet in Jackson's rendition of "Great Gettin' Up Morning" represented the Emancipation Proclamation.  

Note 2

Jerry Silverman, a folk music collector/expert, gives an explanation similar to Dr. Boyer's (discussed in note 1) of how "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" symbolized liberation from slavery.  Silverman's explanation, in his collection of songs titled Spirituals, emphasizes God's intervention as he writes that the slaves believed if they were strong (i.e. had strong faith in God), he would step in on their behalf to bring down the walls of slavery just as he did with the walls of Jericho.  

Note 3:

The number seven has some interesting connections to the hopes of African-Americans for freedom..  Not only is this number crucial to the events of the battle of Jericho, but it also plays an important role in Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee".  To be specific, a highlight of the song is the seven horn blasts following the introduction.  Also, Stagger Lee rolls a seven while gambling with Billy.  By interpreting this number as a symbol of freedom, the seven rolled by Stagger Lee could be viewed as representing the freedom that blacks were given when slavery was abolished, and Billy's claim that the number was actually an eight could be seen as the Jim Crow system rearing its head to force blacks back into bondage.  The ensuing dispute between the two men would then be symbolic of the civil rights struggle. 

In addition to "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and "Stagger Lee", the number seven has another connection to freedom in black music.  The classic reggae album Two Sevens Clash by the Rastafarian group Culture celebrates a vision of the end of the world with optimistic joy--joy because the apocalypse was seen as bringing liberation to the suffering people of Jamaica.  Rastafarians believed that the clashing of the two sevens would take place in the year 1977.  July 7, 1977 was anticipated to be the actual date of the apocalypse as it was the day that the four sevens clashed.  Just as the battle of Jericho is a story found in the Bible, there is also a Bible story dealing with the clashing of sevens.  In Chapter 41 of the book of Genesis, Pharaoh dreams of several sets of two groups of  seven clashing [seven kine (or cows) against another seven kine and seven ears of grain against another seven ears of grain].  Again, these clashing sevens have a connection to freedom in that Pharaoh rewarded the imprisoned slave Joseph for correctly interpreting the dream by freeing him from slavery and making him prime minister of Egypt. 

Coincidentally, the number seven is also associated with America's symbol of freedom, the Statue of Liberty.  Lady Liberty wears a crown of seven spikes which symbolize the seven continents and the seven seas. 

Note 4:

    According to the The Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary contained in the New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, the word "yerach" (listed as word number 3391 in the concordance) means "month" or " moon".  The Hebrew and English Lexicon of the New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius defines the word "yerach" as "to be yellow".  You can probably find Strong's Concordance in your local library.  The New Brown-Driver is much more scarce, but you can still verify that "yerach" means "yellow" by doing a quick Internet search on Google.com.  Simply type the words "yerach" and "yellow" in the search box.  One of your first hits will probably be a page from www.eliyah.com,  a good source which explains these meanings.  You can also verify that Jericho comes from the word "yerach" with another Google search.   Type in the words "jericho", "yerach", and "moon" in the search box and you should find a bunch of hits indicating that Jericho was named after the moon.  

Note 5

Lloyd Price made several interesting comments related to his songwriting and his recording of "Stagger Lee" to Living Blues magazine ( issue #147, September/October 1999).  These comments are listed and discussed below.

  • Price decided to record a version of "Stagger Lee" based on work he did related to the badman's legend when he was in the Army.  While in Korea, he wrote a play to entertain the troops which told the story of Stagger Lee.  I believe that it is possible that his stint with the military may have influenced him into giving a civil rights theme to his recording of "Stagger Lee".  Let me explain.  In 1950, General Matthew Ridgeway ordered the troops in Korea to be integrated.  This was one of the very first signs of the breaking apart of the walls of segregation in the history of America.  Having grown up in the deep south, Price certainly must have been affected by his experiences in an integrated American Army, and these experiences may have influenced him to record "Stagger Lee" as a call for and celebration of black freedom.    
  • The inspiration for Price's great introduction to "Stagger Lee" about a clear night and a yellow moon was his Army play.  According to Price, the play had the very same setting and it served as the basis for the record's introduction.  
  • Price, who describes himself as having  "limited ability" at playing the piano,  got the idea for "Stagger Lee's" horn blasts from a simple piano turnaround.  (Turnarounds are used in the blues as transitional phrases, signaling the end of one verse and the beginning of the next one.) 
  • For every song that he wrote, Price gave credit to his business partner Harold Logan as a co-writer, even though Logan did not actually participate in the songwriting. Therefore, it was Price alone who authored the lyrics in the great introduction to "Stagger Lee".  (The rest of the lyrics are very similar to those contained in a version recorded in 1950 by another New Orleans R&B musician who went by the name of Archibald.)


Part 2: The Law in the Jim Crow South

Note:  The purpose of the discussion below on how the law in the Jim Crow south was an oppressive force against black people is to provide the historical background necessary for understanding how the legend of Stagger Lee evolved from that of a ruthless badman to that of a civil rights hero.  When we think of what Jim Crow was all about, many of us think of things like separate drinking fountains and bathrooms for whites and blacks.  This is what most of us were taught about in our American History classes in school.  However, while it is correct that Jim Crow involved legal segregation, there were aspects to it which were much crueler and more sinister than separation of the races.  Some of this is discussed below.


Jim Crow, the system in the southern states of legal segregation of black people from white people, came about after the end of the Civil War Reconstruction period and lasted until it was wiped out in the 1960s by the civil rights movement.  Whites established segregation because they believed that African-Americans were inferior to them and that the mixing of the two races would corrupt the white race. They felt that they were maintaining the "purity" of the white race by separating blacks from whites. Segregation was the norm in schools, hospitals, restaurants, public transportation, etc. It was a part of everyday life. 

Segregation was the most visible evidence of how the law treated African-Americans unfairly during the days of Jim Crow, but there were many other forms of discrimination. Many southern lawmakers--and the system of law, in general--worked very hard to deny blacks their civil rights in additional ways. For example, in many areas, government officials established poll taxes and literacy tests to keep blacks from voting.  Georgia's own governor, Eugene Talmadge, worked in concert with the Ku Klux Klan to prevent blacks from voting in elections. Furthermore, laws were established which made it easy to arrest poor people, and they were then enforced almost exclusively against African-Americans. For example, blacks would be arrested for vagrancy, and--since they often could not pay the fine--they would be forced to pick cotton in the fields of the planters who paid off their fines.  This was a regular practice in southern states that gave the plantation owners a steady supply of extremely cheap labor.

Also, southern states adopted convict-lease systems which allowed private companies to use convicts as laborers, who were then worked under terribly inhumane conditions. The black prison population was targeted by the system. It was simply another form of slavery.  Some of the worst offenders were the turpentine companies which used convicts in Florida to extract sap from pine trees and convert it into turpentine. Working conditions in the camps were horrible, and prisoners were given cruel punishments including being placed in cramped sweatboxes and being hung off the ground by their thumbs. There was little chance of escape. Some men committed suicide as a way out of the hellish camps.

Other examples of the way that the law worked against African-Americans come from the barbaric act of lynching. There were some brave law enforcement officers who risked their own lives to prevent these murders, but there were many others who did far from their best in stopping them.  Sometimes they actually participated in the lynchings and even posed for photographs with the victims.  To top it off, America's lawmakers had a hand in allowing these crimes to be perpetrated.  There was strong resistance against passing anti-lynching laws in America--and not just in the south.  Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed the establishment of these laws (Note 1).  Lynchings were incredibly savage. Before the victim was hanged, he could be subjected to hours of torture. Knives, branding irons, blowtorches, and even corkscrews were used. Fingers and toes were cut off as souvenirs. Sometimes victims were forced to mutilate themselves.  Many of the men and women who were lynched were completely innocent of any wrongdoing.  Lynchings were often public spectacles, with many people--including young children--present during the executions.  The fact that the American systems of government and law did not do more to prevent these horrible murders is one of this country's greatest shames.

During the Jim Crow era, many blacks were sent to prison for the slightest offenses, but it was difficult to send a white man to prison unless he had committed a very serious crime.  Prison populations became predominantly black.  Many of those men were innocent of the crimes for which they had been convicted.  And many of those innocent men were executed. There certainly were racists among the men who worked in the system of law that sent those innocent men to prison and to the gallows. One of those men was Sheriff Willis McCall of Lake County, Florida. (Note 2)

McCall was pitted against Harry T. Moore, an African-American educator and civil rights leader, over a case known as the Groveland Four when Moore and his wife were killed in their home by an explosion on Christmas night in 1951. Years later, Raymond Henry, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, confessed to making the bomb and accused Sheriff McCall of planning the murders.  Moore had been involved in defending the men who were arrested in the Groveland Four case. They were all black men and they had been accused of raping a white woman in Sheriff McCall's Lake County. (The case has come to be known as "Florida's Little Scottsboro" due to its similarity to a case involving the frame-up of a group of African-Americans for rape in Scottsboro, Alabama.)  After the Supreme Court ordered a new trial for two of the Groveland defendants, McCall shot both of them while they were manacled together in his custody. One of the men died. The other survived by playing dead. The sheriff claimed he shot them in self-defense.  For the next 20 years, he was regularly involved in controversies that exposed him as a racist.  He clearly had little concern over being labeled a racist--in 1971, it took the threat of a court order to force him to take down a sign in his office which read "Colored Waiting Room".  Despite all the trouble that surrounded him, he was re-elected as sheriff seven times in a row.  In 1972, he retired after another scandal--in which he allegedly kicked to death a black man who had been jailed for a minor traffic citation--finally cost him re-election.  There is no way of knowing how many of his fellow officers of the law were also racists.  But a clue might be found in the fact that McCall was elected president of the Florida Sheriff's Association after he shot the Groveland Four defendants.

From the above discussion of the law in the Jim Crow south, it is easy to understand why African-Americans saw officers of the law and the whole system of law as a threat rather than a protective force.  W. E. B. DuBois, in his classic book The Souls of Black Folk, pointed to the white man's law and system of justice as "sources of humiliation and oppression".  When an African-American citizen had a run-in with the law, for even just the slightest offense, he could suffer terribly for it simply because the color of his skin was black.  Due to this state of affairs, a black man had to constantly have his guard up to protect himself.  An experience that bluesman Mississippi John Hurt once had serves as an excellent example of the wariness that African Americans held for the law.  Hurt, after making some remarkable recordings in 1928 (including his classic "Stack O' Lee Blues "), disappeared into obscurity until he was discovered in the early 1960s working on a farm in Mississippi.  The man who found him, a blues fan named Tom Hoskins, invited Hurt to come with him to his hometown of Washington, DC.  At first the bluesman hesitated in accompanying Hoskins because he suspected that this white man was a police officer or an FBI agent who was attempting to take him into custody.  Knowing that he had done no wrong, he went along with Hoskins anyways, figuring that he would have to go either voluntarily or by force.  (What he didn't know was that his reluctant trip to Washington would lead him on to fame as one of the biggest stars of the 1960s blues revival.)

It is no surprise that trouble with the law is one of the major themes of the blues.  There are many blues songs dealing with sheriffs and police officers, judges and trials, and jails and prisons.  Many of them are autobiographical.  The great Delta bluesman Charley Patton sang about his experiences with the law in "High Sheriff Blues" and "Tom Rushen Blues".  "Duncan and Brady", a song with some similarities to "Stagger Lee", tells the legend of a black bartender who kills a white policeman for interfering with his business.  "Joe Turner Blues", sometimes referred to as the "granddaddy of the blues",  is a song about a real-life prison transfer agent.   In "Penitentiary Blues", Lightnin' Hopkins sings about doing time for another man's crime and ends the song by warning listeners that the same thing could happen to them.  Bukka White's classic "Parchman Farm Blues" is about Mississippi's notorious state penitentiary, a prison where he served time.  The most famous of all the prison songs may be Leadbelly's "Midnight Special".  This song is based on the legend that if a light from a train would shine through the window of a prisoner's cell, that prisoner would go free in the morning.

Part 3 is below following the notes to Part 2


Note 1:

FDR's opposition to anti-lynching legislation and the African-American reaction to it are discussed in a book by Philip Dray titled At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America.

Note 2:

Before you have finished reading this essay, it might occur to you that, in discussing the days of Jim Crow (here and in later parts of this essay), I am unfairly picking on the state of Florida.  Racism and discriminatory laws were certainly not limited to Florida (or to the south for that matter), but I have focused on this state for several reasons.  First of all, this essay was sparked by my correspondence with Stetson Kennedy, a man who has labored for the cause of civil rights for many years, doing much of his work in his home state of Florida.  Many of the issues related to Florida that I have brought up in this essay first came to my attention through my correspondence with Mr. Kennedy and my reading of his own writings.  Second, Florida is my adopted home and my curiosity about its history had led me to learn that it has an important and largely unknown past--both bad and good--related to racism and the civil rights struggle.  Below is some of what I have learned.

Although Florida is our southernmost state, many people do not think of it as a southern state.  It is set apart from other states in its region in several ways.  Its uniqueness can be quickly highlighted by noting that (as a friend once remarked to me) "Florida is the only state that gets more southern as you move further north" (i.e. the further north you travel, the more southern drawls you hear, the more rebel flags you see, etc.).   Despite its uniqueness, with respect to the issue of race relations, Florida has a history which makes it much more similar to southern states such as Mississippi and Alabama than the average person realizes.  Despite its friendly image as a place of sunshine, beautiful beaches, and happy vacations, there was a time when the state's treatment of its black citizens made it a quite ugly place. 

For example, the Orlando area was once a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, and it harbored so much racism that it was characterized by the Orlando Sentinel as once being "a bastion of southern hatred".  A large majority of vacationers who have visited Disney or some of the many other attractions of central Florida would be surprised to find out that America's first civil rights martyr, Harry T. Moore, was killed not far from the land of Mickey Mouse and Snow White.  Moore, an African-American educator and civil rights activist, was murdered along with his wife on Christmas night in 1951 when a bomb exploded inside their house in the small central Florida town of Mims. 

In another incident, in the town of Ocoee which is just outside of Orlando, at least five black people were killed and much of the black neighborhood in which they lived was destroyed by a white mob.  The exact number of people who died is not known, but some accounts place the death toll at closer to 50.  It happened on election day in 1920; the killings and destruction were triggered by racist anger over a few blacks who had the courage to exercise their right to vote.

A similar massacre occurred in 1923 in Rosewood, Florida, a black town which was 50 miles from Gainesville and only a few miles from the idyllic fishing village of Cedar Key.  The destruction wreaked by a white mob was so complete that the town was wiped completely off the map.  While newspapers reported that only seven African-Americans were killed, some eyewitnesses claimed that 30 or more died. 

There were many lynchings in Florida, and--in what was probably the most barbaric lynching that ever took place in America--a black man named Claude Neal was brutally tortured and killed in 1934 in the north Florida town of Marianna.  When people think of sunny Florida, they do not envision lynchings, but between 1900 and 1930 the state probably led the nation in lynchings per capita (i.e. per number of black residents) according to Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore, a PBS documentary produced by the University of Florida.

To Florida's great fortune, a man named Leroy Collins became governor of the state in 1955.  Governor Collins--who at one time was in favor of segregation--went against both his fellow southern Democrats and popular opinion in his state by moving Florida steadily in the direction of racial tolerance and integration.  The work he did spared his state from much of the racial strife that occurred in other states during the 1960s.   Collins was a man of great courage, vision, and leadership; his story  should be required reading for any person holding public office.



Part 3:  The Transformation

In this part, we will look at how the legend of Stagger Lee evolved from that of a ruthless badman to that of a civil rights hero.  But before exploring this transformation, we need to clarify the use of the term "badman".  In African-American culture, the black badman was often viewed sympathetically and was even thought of as a hero.  (White folklore also has its share of badman heroes.  For example, the outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd was a hero to many and was even celebrated in song by Woody Guthrie.) 

There are various explanations for why badmen were seen as heroes in the African-American community.  One that fits well with the Stagger Lee legend can be found in an essay on black folklore by John W. Roberts which appears in the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History.  According to Roberts, the black badman could be viewed sympathetically by African Americans because his victims were often dishonest, roguish characters who threatened to upset the harmony existing within the black community.  The badman eliminated individuals whose conduct put the community in danger of having the law stick its nose in to interfere with local affairs.  This can be explained specifically in relation to the subject matter of this essay.  Within the African American community, illegal activities such as the juke joint gambling engaged in by badmen such as Stagger Lee were an accepted and (arguably) necessary part of life (even though they may have been illegal or considered to be immoral by some members of the community).  But a cheat--such as Billy was often portrayed to be--was not to be tolerated, as he had the potential to brew up the kind of trouble that would bring into the black community a very unwelcome element--the white man's law.  And the policing of juke joints would result in restrictions that would interfere with the ability of these establishments to provide a good time for their patrons.

The above explanation and others dealing with why badmen were heroes to blacks revolve around the adversarial relationship between the black community and the white system of  law.  Since the white man's law was used to enforce the racist rules of the Jim Crow system against blacks, it is understandable that they could make heroes out of the badmen who were at odds with the law.  This point will soon be illustrated below in a discussion of  how a real life badman named Roy became a hero to the black community in which he lived. 

Now let's take a detailed look at how Stagger Lee's transformation from badman hero to civil rights champion took place and how this change was reflected in black music.   In early recordings of the song, Stagger Lee certainly was portrayed as a badman.  One of the earliest recorded versions, titled "Stack O' Lee Blues" was by Ma Rainey (available on her Complete Recorded Works Volume 3, 1925-1926). Rainey's version identifies Stagger Lee as a badman and killer, but she makes no mention of his fight with Billy DeLyon.   In the year 1927, Furry Lewis recorded a version titled "Billy Lyons and Stack O' Lee" (available on his Complete Recorded Works, 1927-1929) in which Stagger Lee shoots Billy Lyons during a great fight triggered by a gambling dispute. Stagger Lee shows no mercy as Billy's sister begs him to spare her brother's life. A key element in this song is that the law is afraid to go after Stagger Lee who is armed with a deadly forty-five. In possibly the greatest version of the song, Mississippi John Hurt's 1928 recording (available on Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings) makes no mention of gambling, but he identifies the dispute as being over a five dollar Stetson hat. (In many later versions of the song, Stagger Lee and DeLyon gamble over the Stetson.) Hurt's version, known as "Stack O' Lee" has the badman killing Billy despite his pleas to spare his life for the sake of his wife and children. Similar to Lewis's recording, Hurt's version portrays the police as being afraid to go after Stagger Lee for his crime. A key element in Hurt's version occurs when Stagger Lee is at the hangman's noose--he holds his head up high, apparently having made no apologies and showing no sense of guilt. (Blues historian Max Haymes points out the badman's defiance at the rope in his essay "Got the Blues for Mean Old Stack O' Lee".  It is posted on the world wide web at  www.earlyblues.com.  Also, the lyrics to most of these early versions of the song are included in that essay.)

There are three key elements--the law's fear of Stagger Lee, his lack of remorse at the gallows, and the dispute involving the Stetson--that are crucial to understanding how the gambler's legend evolved from badman to civil rights hero. Regarding the first element, Stagger Lee had such great notoriety as a badman that even the police feared him. This was enough to draw admiration from members of the black population who, under the Jim Crow system, must have seen the white man's law as nothing short of evil.  Jim Crow, backed up by a strong--and often racist--police force and by the threat of extralegal acts like lynching, was the white man's way of ensuring that blacks "stayed in their place".  They were required to be obedient and submissive to  discriminatory laws and practices which not only held them back but were also humiliating and degrading.  Due to this oppressive white system, African Americans must have envied a legendary figure like Stagger Lee, a man of their own race who could do as he well pleased and still have the law stay out of his way. But they did not envy him for being a feared criminal; they envied--and admired--him because he refused to accept the subordinate place of a black man in the white man's world.  He stood tall and defied the white man's law.  And in versions of the story where the law does catch up with him and executes him, his legend grows even greater as he is victorious in a battle with the devil, taking control of the underworld and turning it into his own badman's paradise.

Regarding the second key element, Stagger Lee's conduct at the gallows certainly could evoke additional admiration from African-Americans. By standing in defiance before the hangman's noose, he was violating a sacred ritual of the white man's system of justice. As discussed by David M. Oshinsky in Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, the "execution ceremony" required that the condemned man should confess to his crimes, say that he was sorry, and ask for forgiveness from God. In doing so, he (in effect) admits that the white man's law is good and fair, and recognizes that the white man's law is also God's law, and acknowledges that justice is being served through his execution. Oshinsky recounts the events documented in the book Deep South (by Allison Davis, Burleigh Gardner, and Mary Gardner) revolving around two black men about to be executed in Natchez, Mississippi in the year 1934.  One man, identified as Nathan, acted out the part that the authorities expected of him; he "got religion", confessed to his crimes, and admitted that he was wrong.  The other man, identified as Roy, refused to take part in the execution rituals that the authorities laid out for him.  He rejected all attempts at getting him to admit guilt, repent, or apologize.  The one ritual that he did participate in was the last meal, and he mocked this tradition by ordering a final meal of chicken and dumplings and--to show his disdain for the proceedings--cigars.  On the day of his execution, he stood calmly at the rope, quietly defiant until the very end.  He was the living incarnation of Mississippi John Hurt's Stack O' Lee, standing at the gallows with his head proudly held high.

To the local African American community, Roy was considered a hero.  He became a local Stagger Lee like legend and a mythology grew around him which included exploits such as going down to hell and ripping the devils horns from his head.  Roy, a man who had killed his wife and her father, became a hero because he refused to participate in the white man's execution rituals--rituals which served to confirm white supremacy and black inferiority.  On the other hand, Nathan, the man who did participate in the rituals, was seen as a coward.  The black community certainly thought of  Roy as a man who deserved to be punished for his crimes, but he was viewed as a hero due to the defiant and fearless way that he died under the white man's system.  As Oshinsky pointed out in his book, one of the local African Americans made an observation that reflected the feelings of his people very well when he stated that Roy "wasn't much good at livin', but he knew how to die".  By refusing to honor the white man's execution rituals, Roy and Stagger Lee stood as courageous figures to African Americans.

So far, this paper has discussed two of the three key elements that are crucial for gaining an understanding of how Stagger Lee was transformed from a badman into a champion for black freedom.  Before getting into the third key (i.e. the dispute over the Stetson hat), let us continue looking at how Stagger Lee's legend continued to change over the years as recorded in song by various blues artists.  As discussed earlier, the legend of Stagger Lee evolved over time as various musicians emphasized different aspects of the story and added their own embellishments.  As the song continued to change through this folk process, two of the key elements were no longer present in a version recorded by New Orleans musician Archibald.  It was titled "Stack-A-Lee" and became an R&B hit in 1950.  In Archibald's version, the lyrics make no mention of either the law's fear of Stagger Lee or of his defiant conduct at his execution.  These two key elements have disappeared.  In fact, the lyrics make no mention of the law at all and don't even hint at Stagger Lee being executed or brought to justice in any way. (Note 1)  Only one of the three key elements remains--the dispute over the Stetson. 

By excluding the two key elements which dealt with Stagger Lee being brought to justice, Archibald toned down some of the negative aspects of the badman's story.  He presented him as a more positive figure in other ways also.  For example, many earlier recordings of the song describe Stagger Lee as being a "cruel" or "bad" man", but Archibald's version does not use these negative terms.   The basic storyline remains the same--Stagger Lee still kills Billy DeLyon in a dispute over a Stetson, but the killer is not characterized as an evil person.  Instead, in this particular version of the tale, Stagger Lee could simply be an honest man who was cheated by Billy (according to the lyrics, Stagger Lee rolled a seven, but Billy claimed it was an eight), and in his anger made the terrible mistake of taking his opponent's life.  This is something quite different from being a ruthless killer.

Archibald's "Stack-A-Lee" was a huge influence on a recording by Lloyd Price, a musician who also just happened to be from New Orleans.  Price's record, titled "Stagger Lee", was a #1 hit in the late 1950s and it is the version that most people are familiar with today.  The lyrics to "Stagger Lee" are almost identical to the lyrics in Archibald's record.  Therefore, the two key elements which are not present in Archibald's version (i.e. the law's fear of Stagger Lee and his remorseless defiance at the gallows) are also absent from Price's recording.  But Price adds some new twists to the song--he fills his voice with exuberance and employs a musical accompaniment of instruments and back-up singers with an extremely jubilant tone.   The record sounds like a celebration, like a Gary U.S. Bonds party record or a frat-rock song.  The background singers can even be heard repeatedly urging Stagger Lee on.  It was a song about a violent murder that seemed to celebrate the event.  To anyone who was paying attention to the song's lyrics, this must have been quite shocking.  After all, the record was released in the 1950s, not in today's world of Eminem and gangster rap.  Despite the violent lyrics, according to Price (as discussed in an article in Living Blues #147, September-October 1999), the only DJ who would not play the record was Dick Clark.  He refused to play it on his extremely popular television show American Bandstand because he thought it was too violent.  Knowing that sales of "Stagger Lee" would increase greatly if it received exposure on Clark's show, Price rerecorded the song, changing the lyrics so that the story ended with apologies instead of murder (Notes 2 and 3)

Despite the censorship, the original record--which seemed to celebrate a tragic murder and treat the killer like a hero--was well on its way to becoming a #1 hit on both the pop and R&B charts before it was replaced with the nonviolent version.  How could this be?  Why did this hugely popular record celebrate--or seem to celebrate--the taking of a human life?  One possible explanation can be found by looking at the production approach typically employed by Price's record company, ABC-Paramount, in making his records.  As pointed out by Charlie Gillett in his classic rock history The Sound of the City, ABC's typical approach to recording the singer was to provide a loud, rhythmic, and cheerful musical backing for his voice.  In other words, you could say that this tale of murder was given a merry, high-spirited musical accompaniment simply because the record company produced all of Price's records that way regardless of the lyrical content.

The above explanation is probably accurate in a certain sense, but it does not tell the whole story.  There was something much deeper going on with Price's record, as signaled by the fact that it included the addition of a quite unique and powerful introduction to the song which linked it to the spiritual "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho".  As pointed out near the beginning of this essay, creating this link between "Stagger Lee" and the slave spiritual is an indication that the struggle between Stagger Lee and Billy DeLyon  had become symbolic of the black man's struggle for liberation from white oppression.  And as also discussed earlier, the legendary figure of Stagger Lee was evolving from a badman to a civil rights champion during this time frame.  Therefore, the celebratory tone of the record might best be explained by thinking of his fight with Billy as representing the civil rights struggle.  In this case, Stagger Lee's killing of his opponent could be interpreted as being symbolic of the black man's victory in this struggle.  And this triumph would certainly be a cause for celebration.  (Note 4)

With the above explanation, Lloyd Price's recording of "Stagger Lee" serves as a vision of liberation from white oppression in the same way that certain slave spirituals such as "In That Great Gettin' Up Morning" served as visions of release from slavery.  Writing in How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel, Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer points out that this particular spiritual and others were sung as songs of celebration in the mid-1800s when the slaves foresaw that freedom was close at hand. (Note 5) When Price recorded "Stagger Lee" in late 1958, African-Americans must have had a similar sense of anticipation of victory in the civil rights struggle; they had won several important battles (some of which will be discussed in Part 5 of this essay) and their charismatic leader Martin Luther King had emerged on the national scene.  Therefore, this civil rights era recording of the old folk song--with Price's exuberant voice and the jubilant musical accompaniment--could have served as a song of release and celebration similar to spirituals such as "In That Great Gettin' Up Morning".

With this new civil rights version of "Stagger Lee", it becomes hugely important that the fight centered on the ownership of a Stetson hat.  This dispute, over what might seem to be a relatively insignificant thing, is the last of the three key elements which are crucial to understanding how Stagger Lee evolved from a badman type of  hero to a civil rights hero.  As pointed out earlier, the other two elements--the law's fear of Stagger Lee, and his remorseless defiance at the gallows--are not present in the modern Stagger Lee records by Archibald and Lloyd Price.  These  elements were crucial in sustaining the legend of Stagger Lee as a badman and black hero for many years, but they are not present in these two musicians' records.  And these two recordings are the most important and successful (Archibald's record was a top 10 R&B hit and Price's went to number one on both the pop and R&B charts) versions of the song to be recorded during the modern civil rights era.  With these two hits, Stagger Lee's image was cleaned up and his reputation as a badman became diminished, thereby leaving the third key element--the fight over the Stetson--to become the primary focus of the story as Stagger Lee is transformed into a different kind of hero, a hero for black freedom.  It is my contention that during the civil rights era, the dispute over the Stetson between Stagger Lee and Billy came to be symbolic to African-Americans of their struggle for freedom against whites.  This essay now moves to an exploration of how this dispute over a hat took on such a symbolic nature. 

 Part 4 is below following the notes to Part 3.

Note 1:  

Archibald broke his recording of Stagger Lee's story into two parts.  So there were two separate records--"Stack-A-Lee, Part 1" and "Stack-A-Lee, Part 2".  In Part 1, the badman does not suffer any consequences for his crime of shooting Billy.  His punishment is relegated to Part 2, wherein he is shot and killed by the police and is sent to hell.  Part 1 is the version which became a top 10 R&B hit.  Therefore, most of the audience only heard Part 1 and missed the end of the story in which Stagger Lee pays the price for murdering Billy. 

Note 2

Greil Marcus, in his book Mystery Train,  provides different details on what happened.  Marcus writes that Dick Clark asked Price to change the lyrics to eliminate the violence before singing the song on his American Bandstand TV program. Price complied by changing the song so that it ended with apologies instead of murder. Marcus also writes that Price rerecorded the song with the new lyrics.

Note 3:

Dick Clark may have thought that Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" contained lyrics which were too violent for his rock and roll audience, but those lyrics were faithful to the folk music roots of the song.  American folk music has a long tradition of songs with lyrics that portray violence (as discussed by David Hershey-Webb in an article in the April 21, 1993 issue of The Recorder titled "Number One with a Bullet").  One of the best known examples of this is the classic murder ballad "Frankie and Albert" (also known as "Frankie and Johnny").  And "Stagger Lee" is not the only folk song to mythologize an outlaw; other songs include "Jesse James" and Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd".  There is even an old folk song titled "Knoxville Girl" which makes the violent imagery of "Stagger Lee" seem like a silly nursery rhyme.  It tells the story of a boy who kills his girlfriend for not being true to him.  The most graphic lyrics to the song are below.

I picked a stick up off the
And I knocked that fair girl
She fell down on her bended
For mercy she did cry
Oh Willie, dear, don't kill me
I'm unprepared to die

I only beat her more
Until the ground around me
With her blood did flow
I took her by her golden
And dragged her 'round and
Then threw her into the river
That flows through Knoxville

The Louvin Brothers, one of the greatest groups in the history of country music, had a minor hit in 1959 with their version of "Knoxville Girl".  It was the first song that they ever sang together. 

 Note 4

By interpreting the song to be about the black struggle for freedom, Stagger Lee's refusal to spare Billy's life for the sake of his wife and children can be seen as serving to bring out the fact that many black families were mercilessly broken apart by slavery, and by the sending of many innocent black men and women to prison, and by the lynching of many innocent black men and women.

 Note 5

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer, in his liner notes to the 1991 2-CD set Mahalia Jackson: Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns, provides a detailed explanation of how "In That Great Gettin' Up Morning" was a song of anticipatory celebration of the day when the slaves would be set free.



Part 4:  The Stetson Hat

Author's Note on the Stetson hat as a positive versus negative symbol: 

When I wrote the essay below concerning the Stetson hat, I was convinced that the Stetson must have at one time been a symbol of white authority to African-Americans.  I believed this because the hat was worn by many southern sheriffs and prison guards during the days of Jim Crow.  Since the law was the primary instrument by which Jim Crow was kept in place, logic told me that the southern sheriff's trademark Stetson must have been a quite negative symbol to America's black population.  One thing that kept bothering me though was the fact that the hats have actually been worn by some African-Americans.  In particular, I was aware that blues and soul musicians such as Otis Rush, Solomon Burke, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown regularly wore Stetsons. 

After finishing the essay, I continued to research the Stetson and soon it became quite clear to me that, although the hat certainly was a powerful symbol to blacks, it was actually a positive rather than a negative symbol.  There were two sources which helped me to discover this: Louis Armstrong's book Satchmo:  My Life in New Orleans and Cecil Brown's doctoral dissertation Stagolee:  From Shack Bully to Culture Hero.  Armstrong relates in his book that, during his early days in New Orleans, Stetsons were coveted by African-Americans and they often purchased them by making periodic payments.  Brown points out the symbolic nature of the hat by stating that it represented the black man's manhood.  As a symbol of African-American manhood, the Stetson was ultimately a symbol of freedom (as explained in my essay "Stagger Lee: From Mythic Blues Ballad to Ultimate Rock 'n' Roll Record". 

Taking into account the idea that the hat could actually be a positive symbol, I wonder whether perhaps it had a dual symbolic nature which represented both freedom (a positive) and white authority (a negative).  In other words, it might be a case of two different sides of the same coin--on one side, the hat may have been a symbol of Jim Crow-era white authority, and on the other, a symbol of the freedom won by defeating Jim Crow.  If this is the case, then it may be that African-Americans wore the hat as a proud reminder that they were able to survive and triumph over many years of racist oppression. 

Although I may have been incorrect about the Stetson being a negative symbol of racist white authority, this does not invalidate the point I was trying to make in writing the essay.  The essay argues that many African-Americans who listened to Lloyd Price's civil rights-era recording of "Stagger Lee" may have interpreted it as being about their ongoing struggle for freedom due to the fact that the fight between Billy and Stagger Lee centered on a symbol of racist white authority--the Stetson hat.  This argument still holds together with the corrected understanding that the Stetson was actually a symbol of freedom itself.

I plan to revise the essay to reflect the findings discussed above.  Until then, I will continue to investigate the significance of the hat and its meaning as it relates to the Stagger Lee legend.  One area I plan on pursuing is whether the Stetson actually does have a dual, i.e. positive/negative, symbolic role.  If so, this should not be a surprise because the transforming of a negative into a positive is not an uncommon thing for African-Americans.  Wally Amos (also known as "Famous" Amos) is a good example of this.  His favorite saying goes something like "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade."  This philosophy is quite fitting in that it comes from a member of the African-American people, a people which has had to adapt to racist adversity and overcome great obstacles in order to survive. 



In Mississippi John Hurt's "Stack O' Lee Blues", he laments that Billy was murdered over a $5 Stetson hat.  Bob Dylan's extraordinary version of the song, based on an obscure 1927 recording by Frank Hutchison titled "Stackalee", echoes that sentiment as, in a wailing voice, he repeatedly lays the blame for all the trouble on "that John B. Stetson hat".  But his recording specifically identifies the hatmaker's full name, as if to say that there is more to the story, that the cause was something more than just the hat itself.  What Dylan might be saying is that the trouble was all about the same thing that the Stetson hat is all about.  Let me explain what I mean by this.  The Stetson is a powerful symbol which has strong elements of conflict and violence ingrained deeply in its history.  For example, it was sometimes referred to as a "war bonnet".  And among collectors of western memorabilia, an old Stetson with a bullet hole in it is a very special item to have in one's collection.  According to Lewis Nordyke's article "Boss of the Plains: The Story Behind the Stetson" (collected in The Cowboy Reader, an anthology edited by Lon Tinkle and Allen Maxwell), the Stetson was known as a hat that could take a dozen bullet holes and still not unravel.  The Stetson can represent good on the one hand and evil on the other.  A classic example of this comes from the cowboy movie cliche of the "good guys" wearing the white hats and the "bad guys" wearing the black.  As a symbol of the cowboy, it is also a symbol of the white man's violent struggle with the American Indian.  It is a symbol of the lawman, but, as Stetson Kennedy has pointed out to me, it is also a symbol of the lawman against the badman.  This translates, for African-Americans, into a symbol of the lawman against Stagger Lee, and of the lawman against the black man as will soon be discussed in detail below.

By recognizing the Stetson's great symbolic nature, we can see that the fight between Billy DeLyon and Stagger Lee was about much more than a $5 Stetson.  It represented something of much greater significance than a simple hat--it signified the battle between good and evil, between lawman and badman, and between black and white.  In the southern states, the Stetson was almost as much a symbol of the law as a police officer's badge.  To African-Americans, this type of hat--when perched on top of a lawman's head--must have been a potent symbol of the injustices that they were forced to endure under a racist system of law.  Southern sheriffs, prison guards, and other officers of law enforcement were the primary instrument by which the Jim Crow system was kept in place, and the Stetson hat was a typical part of the southern lawman's uniform.  By killing the man in the fight over the Stetson, Stagger Lee symbolically defeated the people and the system that oppressed him and the African-American people for so many years. 

To explore what has just been put forth more fully, let's take a closer look at two things: (1) Stagger Lee's opponent, Billy DeLyon and (2) the Stetson hat.  Lloyd Price's and Archibald's recordings do not explicitly identify Billy as an officer of the law, but the song's storyline of a dispute over a Stetson certainly must have influenced African-Americans into seeing him as a white lawman.  The law and the men who enforced it were a constant threat to blacks.  Even the most docile harmless law-abiding black men had to constantly be on guard against acting in a way that the law saw as a provocation.  Simply standing up for one's rights could mean having to deal with "the man" and doing time in jail.   Since the law was such a threat to blacks, and the Stetson was a symbol of the law, many blacks must have seen the dispute over the hat as representing the black man's struggle with the white man's system of law.  And since blacks identified with Stagger Lee, they would have cast Billy DeLyon with the role of a white policeman.  In fact, in an essay titled "Got the Blues for Mean Old Stack O' Lee", Max Haymes points out that Billy is portrayed as a policeman in an early recording about Stagger Lee from 1927 by two men known as The Downhome Boys.  (See www.earlyblues.com for Haymes's essay.  Also see Note 1.) Therein, he also points out that the fifth stanza of the song seems to protest the common practice of arresting innocently idle blacks for vagrancy, a discriminatory practice which I discussed earlier in this essay.)  It would be fair to say that the role of the police officer is so vital to the Stagger Lee legend that--in versions which make no specific mention of the lawman--he and Billy  have become combined into a single person. (Note 2)

Now, let's move the focus away from Billy and take a closer look at the Stetson hat itself. When people write about the legend of Stagger Lee, they rarely fail to mention the Stetson--probably because they sense that it is very important, even crucial, to the story.  But these writers also rarely offer any explanation as to the significance of the hat to the story.  Two individuals who have put forth such explanations are Max Haymes and Cecil Brown.  Haymes discusses the Stetson (in the essay referenced above) in terms of its magical or mojo-like qualities.  And Brown wrote about the importance of the hat, mainly on a psychological (Freudian) basis, as part of his dissertation titled Stagolee: From Shack Bully to Culture Hero.  I will go in a different direction in my essay, focusing on the Stetson in connection with the history of race relations between African-American and white people. 

But before we get into specifics about the Stetson, let's look at the symbolic nature of hats in general.  They often serve as symbols of authority as in a king's crown or in the special hats worn by military and police officers.  Traditionally, in the presence of a king or another individual holding a post of authority, a man of lower station was expected to remove his hat.  By baring his head, he in effect became shorter thereby showing subordination to his superior.  In the past, hats were symbolic of social class, with members of different classes wearing different types of hats.  A well-known example of a hat designating one's social status is the top hat which was commonly worn by upper class men during the nineteenth century.  Hats also represent transformation, as in the crowning of a king.  Anyone who has attended a high school or college graduation ceremony is familiar with the symbolic transformation made by moving the tassel from one side to the other on top of a graduate's mortarboard.  (Note 3)

The Stetson is a large and impressive hat that could make a man appear much taller and give him a certain air of authority.  It is a symbol of law and order to Americans because it is part of the uniform of many law enforcement agencies.  But to certain groups, the Stetson can be a very negative symbol.  In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a book filled with symbolism, there is a key scene when a mean-spirited white character wears a Stetson.  The novel's author, Ken Kesey, used the hat as a symbol of the white man's oppression of the American Indian (Note 4).  In the world of African-Americans, the Stetson must have also been a symbol of white oppression because it was commonly worn by southern men of the law including sheriffs, prison guards, and judges.  Not all southern lawmen were racists (some of them risked their own lives to save black men from lynch mobs), but many of the uniformed officers of the law in the south were enthusiastic enforcers of the Jim Crow system. 

The folklorist Alan Lomax, near the beginning of his book The Land Where the Blues Began, tells of his encounters with two Mississippi sheriffs who displayed racist attitudes that surely were common among southern lawmen.  One of the sheriffs, whom Lomax described as wearing his Stetson "like a crown", expressed shock over the idea that Lomax would shake hands with a black man or use the term "Mister" in addressing him.  Possibly the most notorious and powerful of all the southern sheriffs was Willis McCall, the racist Lake County, Florida sheriff who shot the Groveland Four defendants.  McCall, with his Stetson capping his hulking six foot one inch 240-pound frame, was a personification of the evils of the Jim Crow system. 

A Stetson was the trademark of another well-known lawman, Bud Russell.  Russell's name was legendary in the jails and prisons of the south.  As the chief transfer agent for the Texas prison system, he is said to have traveled millions of miles, most of them spent transporting prisoners from local jails to Texas state prisons.  His work had him traveling throughout the south and through many northern states also.  It is estimated that he had 115,000 men in his custody during his forty year career and only one of them was ever able to escape.  A large percentage of these prisoners were African-Americans.  Russell treated these black men more humanely than the average officer of the law, but his exceptional efficiency at getting his job done make him a figure of dread among the black prison population.  He transported groups of prisoners "long-chained" together by the neck in a specially built wagon known as Black Betty.  When a man in a jail cell awaiting transfer to a Texas state prison heard the rattling of chains coming towards him from down the hall, he knew it was Bud Russell and that any chance at escape had been lost.  But there were other ways of identifying Russell; in Alan Lomax's book  The Land Where the Blues Began, he quotes from a song the prisoners sang about Russell (probably from a version of the classic song "The Midnight Special").

    Yonder comes Bud Russell
    How do you know?
    I know by his big hat
    And his forty-four

The "big hat" was Russell's trademark grey Stetson (Note 5).  This was not the only song about Russell.  The great Texas bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins wrote and recorded a song called "Bud Russell Blues" and also mentions him in another recording titled "Penitentiary Blues".  As you might suspect, Hopkins was from Texas and he served time in prison.  Russell was such a legend that the term "Uncle Bud" became synonymous with prison transfer agents in general (Long-Chain Charlie was another slang term for these agents). 

When Uncle Bud delivered a group of prisoners to the penitentiary, they were taken into the custody of guards who despised convicts, especially black convicts.  In the 1967 Paul Newman movie titled Cool Hand Luke, Hollywood brought us the chilling image of the cold cruel prison guard (Note 6).  The guard who stood out the most in the movie was known as "the walking boss" or "the man with no eyes".  He had a particularly menacing appearance which was emphasized by his black Stetson hat and reflective shades (Note 7).  Although the guards treated the convicts with brutality, this celluloid version of prison life fell far short of depicting the horrible conditions that many prisoners, and blacks in particular, endured in the south's prison system.  A very graphic, factual account of a convict's experiences in a state penitentiary can be found in Albert Sample's book Racehoss: Big Emma's Boy (Note 8).  In this book, Sample--a real-life inconceivably tough Stagger Lee figure himself--tells of his years in a Texas prison where guards constantly brutalized black prisoners and even killed them without any fear of being held accountable.  One such guard was nicknamed Boss Killer Band because he allegedly murdered a whole band of black convicts--a total of 14 men--in a single day.   In Lomax's The Land Where the Blues Began, he likens the southern prisons he visited to Nazi concentration camps.  He describes the extreme racism of the guards in these prisons and in one particular description of them he points out their Stetson hats.  For the many blacks who served time in prisons, the Stetson must have been associated with some of  the most brutal aspects of white oppression.

In writing this paper, I gathered information from the writings of Stetson Kennedy and corresponded  with him regarding the Stetson hat.  As Mr. Kennedy has been a dedicated worker for civil rights for many years, and he is also a relative of the man who created the Stetson, he certainly has a sensitivity to the meaning of this hat to African-Americans.  He told me the following story which is an excellent illustration of how this simple hat could be a powerful symbol to blacks living in the Jim Crow south.

In the 1940s, many African-Americans worked in the migrant camps of south Florida in the fertile fields just south of Lake Okeechobee.  On Saturday nights, the local sheriff would make his rounds by visiting the many juke joints frequented by these migrants.  These jukes were rough places where knife fights were common, but the sheriff came up with a unique way of reducing the number of cutting scrapes   He would go to the establishment with the worst reputation and throw his Stetson out on the dance floor.  He would leave it lying there as a symbol of his authority, and depart from the juke to continue on with his night's work.  The hat was such a powerful symbol that the couples would be extremely careful to not disturb it as they moved around the dance floor.  After making all the other stops on his rounds, the sheriff would drive back to the juke where he had left his hat.  Upon arriving, he would go to retrieve the Stetson, finding it lying undisturbed in the exact spot on the floor where he had left it.  (Note 9)


Based on the above discussion of the Stetson, it should be clear that this type of hat was a very powerful and negative symbol to members of the black community.  It was a symbol of the law, and the law was no friend to African-Americans.  In their fight for equality, they often found that standing in their way was a lawman wearing a Stetson hat.  And since the fight between Stagger Lee and Billy DeLyon centered on a Stetson, many African-Americans who listened to Lloyd Price's civil rights era recording of "Stagger Lee" may have interpreted it as being about their ongoing struggle for freedom.  With Stagger Lee's triumph over Billy, the recording served as a vision of victory in the civil rights struggle, a victory which--after many, many years of slavery and oppression--could finally be imagined as within reach.  From this perspective, the jubilant tone of Price's recording makes perfect sense--it was a victory celebration.

My discussion of the Stetson would not be complete without pointing out that this hat could also be a positive symbol to African-Americans.  In Stagolee: From Shack Bully to Culture Hero, Cecil Brown explained that, during the late nineteenth century, black men--including Lee Shelton, the man upon which the Stagger Lee legend is at least partially based--wore Stetsons as symbols of their manhood or "newly won masculinity".  In effect, wearing a Stetson was a way of showing that you were no longer a slave, but a free man.  Looking at the Stetson from this perspective, the fight between Stagger Lee and Billy could be interpreted as the black race's battle for freedom, with the hat serving as a prize symbolic of that freedom.

Other examples of black men wearing Stetson hats can be found in the world of the blues.  Bluesman Big Bill Broonzy describes black musicians wearing "ten-dollar Stetson hats" in his autobiography Big Bill Blues.  A number of famous bluesmen have worn a Stetson as a trademark including Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Otis Rush.  And the great rock and roll songwriter Otis Blackwell, a black man who grew up in New York with a love for cowboy movies and Tex Ritter cowboy songs, regularly wore a Stetson.    So the Stetson could be a positive or negative symbol with the determining factor being whose head the hat was perched upon.

Part 5 is below following the notes to Part 4.


Note 1:

"Duncan and Brady" is an old song which is specifically about a black man going up against a white policeman.  It was in Leadbelly's repertoire and it tells the story of a black bartender named Duncan who kills a white policeman named Brady in retaliation for harassment of the bar's customers.

Note 2:

John W. Roberts, in chapter 5 of his book From Trickster to Badman, presents an excellent discussion of the black badman versus the white law officer.  See especially pages 196 and 197.

Note 3:

There once was a time in America (not more than 50 years ago) when a man who left his home without a hat on his head was considered to be improperly dressed.  Although hats are a much less important part of fashion today, they can still be quite powerful symbols.  For example, when Hollywood's George Lucas originally explained his idea for the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark to Steven Spielberg, the hat that the character Indiana Jones would wear was one of the major factors which captured Spielberg's imagination.  Here is how Spielberg explained it:  "When he [Lucas] mentioned that it would be like the old serials and that the guy would wear a soft fedora and carry a bullwhip, I was completely hooked".  (Quoted from George Lucas: The Creative Impulse by Charles Champlin.)  (end of Note 3)

Note 4:

The scene occurs in chapter 24 when Chief Bromden tells a story to McMurphy about a time when he was a boy and several white men visited the reservation.

Note 5:

You can find several pictures of Bud Russell wearing his Stetson by clicking here

 Note 6:

  The location of the prison is not identified in the movie, but the novel upon which it is based  sets the story in the state of Florida.  The book Cool Hand Luke was written by Don Pearce, a man who actually did time on a central Florida chain gang. 

Note 7:

In Pearce's book, all the guards wore "cowboy hats", but, in the movie, the "Walking Boss" was the only guard to wear a Stetson.

 Note 8: 

The story of Albert "Racehoss" Sample's life is truly amazing.  He spent 17 years incarcerated in the Texas prison system, doing most of his time in a unit called Retrieve, a place that was known as "the burnin' hell".  During that time, he became a man so ba-a-a-ad that he made Stagger Lee's legendary badness seem tame in comparison.  He was a man of mixed race, both black and white.  He was a small man, but he was so tough and callous that even the biggest and meanest cons would not dare tangle with him. 

Sample was punished on a regular basis for his rebellion against authority and his refusal to accept the dehumanizing treatment to which prisoners were subjected.  But the punishment had no effect on him because he was so hardened by his life's experiences that he could endure incredible amounts of pain and torture. 

The guards would punish him by hanging him up off the ground with handcuffs, suspending him until his feet were just barely off the ground.  This torture was so painful that it was referred to as being effective at making the deaf hear and the blind see.  The warden tried to break Sample's spirit by leaving him hanging like this for hours.  Then, he would approach Sample and ask him how he was doing.  Sample's response was that he was "doin' just fine Cap'n".   Then the warden would ask him "when you want me to let you down from there?".  Sample would respond by saying "whenever you get ready, Cap'n". 

This was the pattern for what was repeated over and over again, with the warden hoping to catch Sample in a moment of weakness in which he would cry out for mercy.  But Sample refused to give in.  It was his way of striking back and protesting against the way he was treated. 

They probably would have killed him if it wasn't for the fact that he was such a valuable laborer on the prison farm.  In his capacity for work, he was a true superhuman--a real life equal to the legendary John Henry.  The guards certainly must have also feared what would have happened if they had tried to kill him and failed.  Even the notorious murderer Boss Killer Band was apparently too frightened of Sample to try to kill him, as evidenced by an incident in which he explained to the prisoner why he hadn't yet killed his "yellow ass".

After he was released from prison,  Sample earned a college degree and became a prison reformer, earning many prestigious awards for his work.  He wrote his life story in Racehoss: Big Emma's Boy.  A powerful movie documentary about him titled Racehoss was released in 2001. 

 Note 9:  

In relating this story to me, Stetson Kennedy explained that he was not sure of where he had come across it, but he believed that its source was his friend, the Florida writer Theodore Pratt.  (Pratt, who wrote extensively about Florida in books and articles of fiction and non-fiction, died in 1969.)  The way Mr. Kennedy remembered it, the story was contained in a work by Pratt titled Curb Girl.

I can find no evidence of anything written by Pratt with that title, but I did learn that there is a Ronald Reagan movie titled Juke Girl which was based upon a story that Pratt provided to NAME of movie studio  (This is documented in letters that Pratt wrote to Kennedy .  The letters are part of a collection of Pratt's personal papers which are archived in Florida Atlantic University's library.)

Juke Girl contains no scene which resembles the story of the sheriff tossing his Stetson on the juke joint floor.   A screenplay for the movie which was included in Pratt's papers did not contain the scene either.  Still, it is possible that the story was included in the material Pratt provided to the studio and was simply never incorporated into the screenplay. 

Despite my failure to find the story among Pratt's writings, I believe that he actually was Kennedy's source, mainly because Pratt wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post titled "Land of the Jook" (published in the April 26, 1941 issue).  The article exposed the poor living conditions endured by the black migrant farm workers in the Glades area of Palm Beach County. 

In this article, Pratt also wrote about his visits to the local juke joints frequented by the migrants.  It is my guess that during one of these visits he must have encountered or learned about the Stetson-throwing sheriff. Possibly Pratt did not write about the sheriff  in his Post article because he wanted to include it in the story that he eventually submitted to Warner Brothers. 

Assuming that Pratt was the source for the Stetson-throwing sheriff story, it probably would have been based on fact because Pratt was a real stickler for authenticity in his novels and other fictional work.  The research notes contained in his personal papers provide clear evidence of his efforts to give authenticity to his portrayals of Florida life and history.  And in regards to his research for Jook Girl, I found a letter from Pratt to Kennedy (dated September 24, 1941) in which he states that Warner Brothers "have a bellyful of 'Glades jook stuff in my story which I gathered in the 'Glades". 



Part 5: Black Power and the Romanticized Stagger Lee

Earlier in this essay, I showed that by looking at recordings which were made between the 1920s and 1950s, you can observe a major change in the myth of Stagger Lee.  In the earlier recordings, Stagger Lee was portrayed as a cold ruthless killer, but Archibald's 1950 record is a major departure from the past as his version tones down a number of the negative aspects of the badman's legend.  Finally, we saw that Lloyd Price's celebratory version of "Stagger Lee" in the late 1950s reflected the fact that the badman had evolved into a champion for black rights.  Now we will take a look at black history and relate it to Stagger Lee's legend in order to gain an understanding of how this major transformation may have come about.  In doing this, we will see that the legend's evolution seems to have mirrored major social and political changes.  Let's examine these changes by taking a look at the world of the black man in 1928, and then jumping three decades ahead to 1958 to see how that world had changed.

When Mississippi John Hurt recorded his classic 1928 version of the Stagger Lee legend, blacks were living under the Jim Crow system, a  system which demanded that they be absolutely submissive to the white race.  In commenting on this system in his book Why We Can't Wait, Martin Luther King pointed out that any African-American who did not defer to whites and who instead showed a "spark of manhood", was likely to be threatened by the police, thrown in jail, and/or beaten.  This is why blacks admired a figure like Stagger Lee.  He had no fear of the law, he stood up to and defied the white man's system.  But he was not a real hero who could bring about real change.  Instead, he was a destroyer, a nihilist with supreme power, a man who blacks could envision as being able to totally obliterate the white man's world.  The popularity of his legend among African-Americans was probably a reflection of the fact that, after so many years of enslavement and oppression, there was simply no hope for change in their world.  As Lawrence Levine pointed out, the American black man's only hope was for the white man's world to be wiped out so that a better one could be built in its place.  And Stagger Lee, the ultimate badman, the man who defeated the devil and took over hell, was the man who could do it.

If we jump ahead now to the time of Lloyd Price's 1958 recording of "Stagger Lee", we see that during that thirty year leap some major changes occurred which resulted in a different and better world for African-Americans.  For example, in 1937, Joe Louis became the world heavyweight boxing champion, making him an absolutely huge hero to blacks.  Many African-Americans (including Malcolm X, who was so inspired by Louis that he stepped into the ring himself) saw Louis as a symbol of the black man defeating the white man and his racist system.  Another advance was made in 1950 with the integration of all troops fighting in the Korean War. And in 1954, in a case known as Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned an earlier decision from over 50 years ago that had allowed school segregation.  This was followed, in 1955, by the event that turned the fight for civil rights into a powerful force--the arrest of Rosa Parks in Alabama for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person.  Also in 1955, blacks were breaking down barriers in the music world as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino all brought rock and roll to white America with their first hits on the pop charts.  Another landmark was reached when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1957 which was the first major piece of civil rights legislation passed in over 80 years.  Later in 1957, another victory was won when federal troops were used to guard black students in order to bring about the court-ordered integration of a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

With all of these advances, "hope"  may have no longer seemed like a dirty four-letter word to African-Americans.  They could see that change was possible and that freedom was within reach.  This major shift was echoed by the transformation of Stagger Lee.  Reflecting the changing times and attitudes, he was converted from a totally destructive force into an agent for social change.  With this newly found hope, the black badman became a symbolic hero in the fight for civil rights.  His ba-a-a-a-dness made him the ultimate warrior in the fight for freedom.  Therefore, after a string of encouraging civil rights victories during the fifties, many black people must have heard Lloyd Price's hit record "Stagger Lee--as it began its climb up the charts in late 1958--as a song of hope about their fight for freedom.  Viewing the record in this way, the celebratory tone of the music can be heard as the sound of rejoicing over the battles won so far and over the final victory envisioned for the future.

Evidence of Stagger Lee's new role as a civil rights hero can be found in the writings and statements of African-American writers and activists such as James Baldwin and Bobby Seale.  For example, Stagger Lee's transformation was pointed out by Baldwin in his foreword to Seale's autobiography.  Therein, he suggests that the defiant act of civil disobedience by Rosa Parks allowed the figure of Stagger Lee to achieve his manhood.  What he was saying was that the legend had matured, that Stagger Lee had, in effect, grown up by redirecting himself to a social and political agenda.  This is what happened with Malcolm X.  After discovering the teachings of Elijah Muhammed, he underwent a transformation from a hustler and hoodlum to a civil rights and religious leader for the Muslim group the Nation of Islam. This major redirection in Malcolm X was referred to by Seale during a 1970 jailhouse interview (excerpted in Greil Marcus's Mystery Train) in which he commented on the legend of Stagger Lee and its inspiration and meaning to him.  He said that he saw Stagger Lee in himself and in the lives led by Malcolm X and his fellow Black Panther leaders Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver.  These men all went through transformations similar to Stagger Lee.   And, looking back in time, it is clear that (as Marcus has stated) the Black Power movement was inspired to some degree by the legend of Stagger Lee.

In saying that he saw Stagger Lee in himself and in other militant black leaders, Bobby Seale was romanticizing the legendary outlaw.  Seale's views reveal a major switch from the past in the way that badmen were treated in the black folk tradition.  Traditionally, the black badman was not a romanticized figure.  Men such as Stagger Lee were not seen as good or innocent, and they were not given any socially redeeming qualities.  Lawrence Levine discusses this subject in some detail in his book  Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery to Freedom.   Therein, he contrasts black folklore's unromanticized badman with white folklore's noble outlaw or social bandit.  Levine points out that white badmen such as Robin Hood or Pretty Boy Floyd (whose exploits were celebrated in song by Woody Guthrie) were seen as benefactors to and heroes of the poor and oppressed.  He theorizes that white folklore's "good" badmen are generated during times of great social change or upheaval out of the desire for a return to the order of the past.  He then concludes that the reason black folklore lacks "good" black outlaws is that the African-American community held no desire for things to return to as they were in the past.  Considering the inhumane conditions that they had lived under for so many years, there obviously was nothing to be nostalgic about. 

In making his argument, Levine brings out the total hopelessness of the black experience in America.  But, with the advances made through the civil rights movement, many of the black men of Bobby Seale's generation finally did have some real hope for a better life.  There was even hope for those who had become disillusioned with the civil rights movement--those who saw that its achievements had little effect on the social problems of black America such as poverty and unemployment--and who then turned, in search of a remedy, to the Black Power movement.  Even this more radical element had hope for change because the racial turmoil of the 1960s received worldwide attention.  The ugliness of America's race problem was being exposed to the world through television news coverage which showed powerful images of the suffering endured by African-Americans and their struggle for equality.  Much of the world looked at the plight of black America with sympathy, and this must have been encouraging to African-Americans.  This hope for change is what may have led to the romanticization of the black badman and to Seale's speaking of Stagger Lee  as a hero.  Seale said that there were millions of Stagger Lees in the black community.  He held such a deep identification with the legend that he named his son Stagolee.   In his jailhouse interview, he explained that he gave his son this name because "that's what his name is" as if to say that "Stagger Lee is who we all are in the black community".  


The Meaning of the Stagger Lee Legend

I want to finish up this section by exploring the meaning of the Stagger Lee legend.  The black writer and folk tale collector Zora Neale Hurston has stated that every African-American folk tale has had a point to make.  All of them have had something to teach black Americans about themselves and the world they lived in.  So what was the point or meaning of the story of Stagger Lee?  What did it teach?  James Baldwin would probably answer these questions with one word: survival. 

Baldwin thought that survival was a main ingredient which African-Americans put into their folk tales (Note 1).  And the story of Stagger Lee can certainly be understood as carrying a message of survival--Stagger Lee was killed by the white man as punishment for the killing of Billy, but he triumphed in the end as he defeated the devil and turned hell into his own version of paradise.  This story offered hope for survival to black men who knew that they could suffer, at the hands of whites, a fate similar to Stagger Lee's--whether it would be by execution, by lynching, or by having their lives slowly sucked out of them bit by bit in any number of ways. 

And there may have been a second way that the legend of Stagger Lee dealt with survival.  It may have made the point that directly challenging the white man's authority would pose a threat to the black man's survival.  After all, if a man as powerful and "bad" as Stagger Lee lost his life by placing himself at odds with the white man's authority, the average black man would not stand a chance challenging the white man.  Therefore, the message of the folk tale may have been that blacks would have to bide their time before they could directly challenge their white oppressors.  They would have to work indirectly to improve their lot, and use their wits to survive until they could take a chance at defying the white man's discriminatory laws.

And this is exactly what African-Americans did.  A great example of this can be seen in the life of the black writer Richard Wright who, while he was a young man, used trickery to get his hands on books which he wanted to read.  Living in an area where blacks were not permitted to borrow books from the local library, he would go to the library and pretend that he was on an errand to pick up the books for a white man.  Wright would borrow the library card of a white co-worker and write a note to the librarian which he signed with the name of the owner of the card.  The note would contain a list of books and request that they be given to "this nigger boy".  He would assume a look upon his face which conveyed to the white librarian that he was totally uninterested in the books.  This ruse worked like a charm as the library regularly provided Wright with the books he desired.  (Note 2)


Note 1:  This is discussed by Maya Angelou in her book A Song Flung Up to Heaven.  According to Angelou, Baldwin also believed that African-Americans put survival into their poems, songs, dances, clothing, cooking and humor.

Note 2:  This story appears in Wright's The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch.


Part 6:  The Ultimate Rock 'n' Roll Record

The greatest pop music was music of liberation: Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Public Enemy, The Clash, The Sex Pistols.  Those were pop groups that liberated an enormous amount of people to be who they are.
            --Bruce Springsteen on Nightline/UpClose
                  (ABC News) July 30, 2002


Lloyd Price's recording of "Stagger Lee" may very well be the ultimate rock and roll record. What follows is my argument for why I make this claim.  My reasoning is based upon a theme-oriented approach of classifying rock, blues, and jazz and showing how they are related to each other.  This approach was developed by a writer named Herb Bowie and is presented in his web book titled Reason to Rock which can be accessed at www.reasontorock.com.  Bowie's methodology is to look at the overriding theme of each type of music and show how they are connected  to each other based on their different themes.  I will explain this approach, and then, I will use its ideas to make my argument for why Price's "Stagger Lee" is the ultimate rock record.

Bowie explains that the theme of the blues is oppression.  To be more specific, it is the white race's oppression of the black race.  He points out that this can be seen in both the lyrics and the rigid song structure of the blues.  In presenting my own argument, I will focus on the subject matter of the lyrics.  When a black man sings the blues, he is not singing about being in a personal state of sadness or depression.  Instead, in singing about his experiences with pain and suffering and frustration and anger, he is singing for all African-Americans about the realities of the conditions that they all face as members of the black race.  The subject matter of the blues is the day to day problems of the black man living under a constant state of white oppression.  For example, a particular blues song may be about not being able to pay the rent--but what is it that is really at the root of the problem of not having the money to make the payment?   Brownie McGhee has pointed out, in Lawrence Redd's Rock Is Rhythm and Blues, that whiskey, women, and money may be the things he sings about in his blues, but a song of complaint about his woman doing him wrong is actually a complaint about the white man doing him wrong.  Therefore, in a very elemental way, the blues is protest music--protest against oppression.  "Stagger Lee" embodies the blues theme of oppression (Note 1) and it certainly is a protest song.  The main reason Stagger Lee was such a legendary figure among blacks is that he was free.  His badness was important because it allowed him to be a free man, to not have to answer to anyone including the white man's law.  Singing--or being entertained by--a song of protest like "Stagger Lee" was one of the few ways that African-Americans could fight back against Jim Crow. 

At the opposite end of the musical spectrum from the blues, we find jazz.  Herb Bowie points out that the theme of this type of music is freedom.   Jazz focuses upon improvisation which is practically synonymous with musical freedom.  A standard jazz technique is to play a popular song and then improvise variations to the melody line.  In the 1950s, avant-garde players such as Ornette Coleman took the idea of musical freedom to the extreme, creating music which is known as "free jazz".

Bowie identifies the major theme of rock music to be liberation, positioning it between the blues and jazz.  He points out that the blues and jazz deal with  fixed states--oppression and freedom--which are opposites of each other, while rock and roll expresses the transition between these states, moving from oppression to freedom.  Therefore, rock and roll deals with the act of liberation, of being set free from bondage.  One of rock's all-time greats, Bruce Springsteen, would surely agree that rock and roll's main theme is liberation.  He has commented about his own life in a way that has made it clear that rock music was his means of escape, his way out, his liberating force.  Many critics have interpreted his "car songs" as being about escape, and Springsteen once pointed out that the guitar was his "key to the highway".  In inducting Bob Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he pointed out that the music of Elvis freed people's bodies and Dylan's freed people's minds.  Clearly, Springsteen sees rock and roll as a liberating force. 

Using the theme-oriented approach discussed above as the basis for my argument, I will now go on to explain why I believe that Lloyd Price's recording of "Stagger Lee" is the ultimate rock and roll record.   But first, let's take a look at this record's "credentials".   It was released in late 1958, and, in early 1959, it went all the way to number one on both the R&B and the pop charts.  Not only that, but it was the first record made in a rock and roll style by a black man, woman, or group that went all the way to number 1 on the pop charts.   At that time, the pop charts were still dominated by white musicians.  Records from Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry had all broken into pop's top 10 in 1955, but Price's "Stagger Lee" was the first black rock and roll record to go all the way to number 1.  (A few hits by black musicians, such as Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" and several records by The Platters became number one pop hits before "Stagger Lee", but they could not really be classified as rock and roll.)  So "Stagger Lee" was a real breakthrough for black rock and roll.  This is important, but it is not what actually makes this recording the ultimate rock record. 

So what does make Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" the ultimate rock and roll record?  It is the ultimate rock record because it is the most fitting and greatest expression of rock's theme of liberation.  Let me explain what's behind this statement.  Rock and roll expresses the theme of liberation in many ways.  For example, Alice Cooper's "School's Out" celebrates freedom from school, Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" deals with escape from a life with no prospects and little hope, and many, many rock songs--such as "Blue Monday" by Fats Domino, "Working for the Man" by Roy Orbison, and "Working for a Living" by Huey Lewis--stem from the desire to be set free from the burden of work.  But, the ultimate expression of rock's theme of liberation--considering the fact that rock and roll developed from the blues--would have to deal with the subject of liberation from some form of oppression.  Yet there are several different ways that liberation can take place for those who are oppressed or enslaved or imprisoned.  For example, some benevolent force could set an enslaved or oppressed people free, as Lincoln did when he abolished slavery or as one country might liberate another from domination by a foreign power.  This, in a way, parallels the type of liberation that Springsteen spoke about when he said that Elvis freed our bodies and Dylan freed our minds.  Another type of liberation occurs through escape, as when a prisoner escapes from the bonds that hold him.  Again, this parallels Springsteen's comments about how rock and roll provided him with a means of escape from a life that he did not care for.  A third type of liberation occurs when a person who is being oppressed faces his oppressor, engages him in battle, and defeats him.  This third type is the most direct, dramatic, and powerful form of liberation, making it the most fitting form for this music that we call rock and roll.

Now, let me recap and get even more specific in defining what would be the ultimate rock and roll record.  Since rock and roll developed from the blues, and since the theme of the blues is the oppression of the black race by the white race, and since the theme of rock is liberation, the ultimate expression of rock and roll would be a record in which the oppressed black race liberates itself by doing battle with and defeating its white oppressors.  If you agree with what has been discussed throughout this essay, you would have to conclude that Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" is that record. 

But let's say that you do not buy into my theories about the Stetson hat or about the link created between "Stagger Lee" and "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho".  By looking at things from a different perspective, I can still make a solid argument for Price's "Stagger Lee" being a song about the liberation of African-Americans from white oppression, thereby making it the ultimate rock and roll record.  Let me explain this other perspective.  By taking "Stagger Lee"--a song which reflects and stems from the oppression of the black race by the white race--out of its blues tradition and recording it as a rock and roll song, Lloyd Price changed its theme from oppression to liberation.  This transformation was brought about by Price, regardless of what his intentions were and what was going on in his conscious or subconscious mind.  A song which was so deeply rooted in the tragedy and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow, and which was recorded in such a jubilant, rocking and exhilarating tone, could no longer be a blues or a song of oppression.  It could only be one thing--rock and roll.  And, as rock and roll,  it announced an amazing turn of events--victory!  Without a doubt, Lloyd Price's recording of "Stagger Lee" is  the ultimate rock and roll record.


Note 1:

"Stagger Lee" is not really a blues song, it's a ballad.  But it is part of the blues tradition and was sung by many bluesmen and also by songsters who were deeply influenced by the blues such as Mississippi John Hurt.



Part 7: The Return of the Badman: Stagger Lee in the 21st Century

According to the late Joseph Campbell, a man who was one of America's greatest authorities on mythology, modern science and technology have greatly reduced the importance of myths in people's lives.  But if he was alive today, he might agree that the myth of Stagger Lee is an exception.  Stagger Lee's legend has not only survived the modern world, but may have actually grown in importance.  Today, we find the figure of Stagger Lee in our books, in our movies, and in our music.  He may have a different name now, such as the black writer Walter Mosley's character Mouse, but there is no mistaking who he is based on his violent actions and bad-ass "I answer to nobody" attitude (Note 1) The world has become a harder, much more dangerous and more violent place to live in, and, in this kind of environment, Stagger Lee's legendary ba-a-a-dness makes him very, very relevant.  After all, a man who can beat the devil at his own game, take control of hell and turn it into his own version of paradise is not just the ultimate badman, he is also the ultimate survivor (Note 2).

Stagger Lee's importance in today's world is the subject of the rest of this essay, but let me backtrack a little bit, for now.  It was not long after Lloyd Price had his late fifties hit with "Stagger Lee" that black rock and roll musicians faded from popularity and were replaced by artists who made soul music.  During the sixties, black singers and vocal groups such as Aretha Franklin and The Temptations shared domination of the pop charts with white pop and rock groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.  Black music in the seventies was dominated by dance and party music--disco and funk.  The legendary black outlaw Stagger Lee had all but disappeared from black music during this decade.  But that was about to be changed by a new form of music known as rap.

Rap had some characteristics which it shared with rock and roll.  Like rock, it was direct, dramatic, and powerful. ( Run D.M.C. even created rap's first pop top 10 hit when it teamed up with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry in a remake of  "Walk This Way".)  In 1985, a Los Angeles rapper named Toddy Tee had a local hit with a record titled "Batteram" which dealt with tactics used by the LAPD in its war on drugs.  It was a hint of what was to come.  In the late 1980s, a group named N.W.A. (a polite abbreviation for Niggaz With Attitude) put gangster rap on the map.  Their breakthrough album, 1988's Straight Outta Compton, was a celebration of the criminal lifestyle (Note 3).  It was an album full of rage depicting mountains of violence with plenty of hell-raising and hedonism thrown in for good measure.  Stagger Lee was back.  And he was bigger and ba-a-a-a-der than ever.  He had new street names like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and a moniker that most resembles his original--Eazy-E.  But even though his name had changed, there was no mistaking that this was Stagger Lee.  It was made crystal clear by the title of one song from the album--"F--k tha Police".  By the early nineties, gangster rap was the dominant form of rap.  But there were also rap groups, such as Boogie Down Productions, who pointed out the consequences of gangster violence.  These groups preached about and created music about being more socially responsible.  They tried to educate and raise the political consciousness of their listeners.  But they also had a tough, aggressive Stagger Lee attitude, as evidenced by the name of one of the best of these groups--Public Enemy--and by the titles of two of their albums--It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet.

Rap music signaled that black America still had a long way to go, especially in escaping from the ghetto.  And, of course, that meant that white America still had a long way to go to.  The civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s did not bring relief to the people living lives of desperation in the worst parts of the big city.  The ghettos just kept getting worse.  The cards were still stacked against inner city African-Americans, and--still to a large degree in at least some cities, if not all--so was the American system of justice and law enforcement.  Out of frustration and anger, Public Enemy recorded the song "911 Is a Joke" and west coast rapper Ice-T wrote the song "Cop Killer" in which he fantasized about "dusting off" some policemen.  Ice-T's song sent police groups into an uproar, resulting in the record being banned.  "Cop Killer" had a chilling message, but people with open minds can understand how a song like that could be written out of anger, especially considering that Ice-T was from Los Angeles, a city whose police force included Mark Fuhrman and the officers who perpetrated the Rodney King beating.

As rap was emerging during the 1980s, proponents of the Reagan-era backlash against civil rights claimed that all that was necessary for black people to improve on their lot in life was for them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  But in his book The Ice Opinion,  Ice-T gives a different point of view, the viewpoint of someone who has actually lived the ghetto life.  He explains how kids living in the ghetto are so easily swept up into a life of crime.  In particular, he points out how in his Los Angeles neighborhood, he saw the police department and system of law literally forcing kids into the wrong side of the legal system.  It is probably impossible for a white person to understand just how big a trap the ghetto is, but Ice-T's book is a real eye-opener.  It makes it clear that for a kid to have a chance of surviving and escaping from the ghetto's world of violence, drugs, and crime, he would have to be strong, gifted, and very, very, very lucky.  And that still would only give him an outside chance. Survival is the name of the game in the ghetto.  Getting out is not about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps; it's about walking through the fires of hell and managing somehow not to be consumed by the flames.  It means doing battle with the devil and somehow coming out on top.  That is why Stagger Lee is back.  Because he is the only one who is ba-a-a-a-d enough to do it.  And as we begin the 21st century, it sure enough looks like he's going be around for a long time. 


Note 1:

Mouse, a character found in Mosley's Easy Rawlins mystery series, is an outstanding modern day incarnation of Stagger Lee.  In the movie based on Mosley's book Devil in a Blue Dress (starring Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins), Don Cheadle gives a particularly chilling performance as Mouse.  Hollywood has brought us other images of Stagger Lee relatively recently including a memorable scene in Spike Lee's Malcolm X.  It takes place in Malcolm's younger days.  Decked out in a colorful zoot suit, he and another man accidentally bump into each other in a night club.  The man insults Malcolm and then takes Malcolm's wide-brimmed hat from his head and tosses it on the floor.  Malcolm responds by breaking a bottle over the man's head knocking him to the floor.  In Stagolee: From Shack Bully to Culture Hero, Cecil Brown points out that Spike Lee may have shot this scene with the myth of Stagger Lee in mind.  (Incidentally, if you take Spike Lee's given name, Shelton Lee, and reverse the positions of the first and last names, you get the name Lee Shelton.  And Lee Shelton just happens to be the name of the man known as "Stag" Lee who killed William Lyons in St. Louis and who may be the historical figure who inspired the Stagger Lee legend.)

Note 2:

In addition to Stagger Lee, the stories of many other African-American folk figures contain the theme of survival.  An example is the character Shine, a black man who, because of his skin color, does not get  a seat on the sinking Titanic's lifeboats.  To save himself, he jumps into the icy water and swims to safety.  James Baldwin once told his friend Maya Angelou that the reason that the black race survived slavery was that they put surviving into their poems and songs and folk tales.

Note 3:

A forerunner of gangster rap was rude-boy music, a music from Jamaica which was popular during the mid-1960s.  It included records which either glorified or condemned the violent criminal lifestyle of the ghetto youth of the island.  The rudies idolized rough, tough, and violent outlaws as can be seen in song titles such as "I'm the Toughest", "Tougher than Tough", and "Johnny Too Bad".  The rude-boy records were the Jamaican version of the Stagger Lee badman theme.