The Hidden Message in Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee"

Copyright © 2002-2014
by James P. Hauser except where otherwise noted.  All rights reserved.

 
Did Lloyd Price's late-1950s rock 'n' roll hit "Stagger Lee" convey a special hidden message to African Americans?  I believe that it did.  Specifically, I believe that there were certain things about the record which led some blacks to interpret it as being about their struggle for freedom from white oppression.  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 with a yellow moon and leaves tumbling down from the trees.  You could call it an incantation.  Then all hell breaks loose as seven quick horn blasts (da-da da-da da-da da) 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 recorded 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 for many of these African Americans, Stagger Lee's struggle with Billy DeLyon could 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. 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 3)  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 created a connection between it and his recording of "Stagger Lee".  

This kind of thing can certainly happen, and it actually did happen to the famous science fiction 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" over 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. 

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 book 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.  I would also point out that when Bo Diddley sang his hit "I'm a Man" he was really saying to white America, "Hey, don't call me boy".

In his book Stagolee Shot Billy, Cecil Brown writes that the fight between Stagger Lee and Billy over the Stetson hat is symbolic of a battle for manhood.  I believe that it logically follows that this battle for manhood is representative of the black man's struggle for freedom from white oppression, as I pointed out in my essay "Stagger Lee: From Mythic Blues Ballad to Ultimate Rock 'n' Roll Record".  But is there any hard evidence to support this particular claim?  My current research is concentrating on answering this and related questions.
 
 
 

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 2Jerry 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:  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.  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.