The Symbolic Meaning of the Stetson Hat

 Copyright © 2002-2009
by James P. Hauser except where otherwise noted.  All rights reserved.

What is the significance of the Stetson hat which was at the center of the dispute between Stagger Lee and Billy DeLyon?  In his book Stagolee Shot Billy, Cecil Brown explained that, during the late nineteenth century, African American men wore Stetsons as symbols of masculinity, status, and power.  In other words, these hats were symbols of manhood.  I would take this idea a step further and argue that the Stetson was not just a symbol of manhood, but also of freedom.  I make this assertion because the black male's manhood is closely intertwined with his freedom and his struggle for freedom.  Slaves were not permitted the status of manhood by their slave owners--an adult male slave was considered to be a boy, not a real man.  Therefore, if the Stetson was a symbol of manhood, a Stetson on the head of a former slave or son of a former slave certainly must have also been a symbol of freedom.  By displaying Stetson hats on their heads, African American men were proudly showing that the days of slavery were over and they were now free men.  

But even after the slaves were emancipated, they were not truly free as they faced an oppressive system of segregation which became the law of the land.  White people thought of blacks as inferior and whites degraded African American men by referring to them as boys.  Bluesman Big Bill Broonzy wrote a song of protest about being treated this way.  He titled it "When Will I Get to be Called a Man?"  Of course, Broonzy's real concern was not with being called a man, but with being treated  like one. 

It's clear that, even after slavery was abolished, the black man's manhood continued to be tied to his struggle for freedom--a struggle which would become quite violent during the 1960s.  If we again look at the Stetson from the perspective of it being a symbol of manhood and freedom, and this time change the focus of our attention from the late nineteenth century to the twentieth century's Jim Crow era, we can see the fight over the hat between Billy and Stagger Lee as representing the African American man's fight for freedom from white oppression.  And Stagger Lee's defeat of Billy may be seen as symbolizing victory for African Americans, as Stagger Lee regains the symbol of manhood and freedom, the Stetson hat. 

I find the song "Stagger Lee"  to be an excellent metaphor for the civil rights struggle.  Let me explain.  Billy's theft of Stagger Lee's symbol of manhood, the Stetson, may be viewed as the establishment of the Jim Crow system, a set of laws and customs which stole the freedom of newly emancipated African Americans and subjected them to a system of oppression which virtually amounted to a new form of slavery.  And the fight between Stagger Lee and Billy for the hat would then correspond to the many violent confrontations between blacks and whites during the civil rights era.  Stagger Lee's defeat of Billy may then symbolize victory for African Americans, with the Stetson serving as the victor's prize of freedom.  To complete the metaphor, Billy's death can be seen as the death of Jim Crow and the abolishment of segregation.

 The Stetson Hat, Manhood, and African American Musicians

In his autobiography Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, the great jazz musician Louis Armstrong wrote that Stetson hats were a prized possession which were often purchased by African Americans on the installment plan.  His book describes an incident in which his woman chased after him with a razor because she believed that he had cheated on her.  Armstrong lost possession of his Stetson while fleeing from his angry woman, and she took it and immediately sliced it up with the razor.  Certainly, with her use of the razor, she was sending a message to Armstrong about what she was angry enough to do to him...or certain parts of him (i.e. his "manhood").

Two of Armstrong's fellow jazzmen also wore Stetsons.  The great stride piano player Willie "The Lion" Smith related in his autobiography, Music On My Mind, that he regularly wore a twenty-five-dollar Stetson hat.  And in Jelly Roll Morton's famous 1938 Library of Congress recordings with Alan Lomax, the jazzman related that there was a time when he yearned for a Stetson and didn't rest until he got one. 

An article written by David Joyner in the October/November 1997 issue of Jazz Player magazine points out that early jazz piano players such as Morton and Smith were particularly concerned with their image and sexual identity.  According to the article, titled "Early Jazz Pianists: Issues of Image and Style", Morton revealed to Lomax that he was reluctant to take up the piano as a youngster because it was thought of as a woman's instrument.  In Morton's words, "I didn't want to be called a sissy.   I wanted to marry and raise a family and be known as a man among men when I became of age."  Certainly this fear of being thought of as womanly must have played a part in creating his great desire for a Stetson.  Joyner's article also discusses Willie Smith's commanding appearance and his reputation for intimidating fellow pianists.  His nickname "The Lion" appropriately reflected the image of authority and manliness which he projected, an image which certainly was fortified by his sporting a Stetson hat.

Other examples of African American musicians wearing Stetson hats can be found in the world of the blues.  Big Bill Broonzy describes blues 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. 

 Some background information on the Stetson hat

John B. Stetson, the creator of the Stetson hat, dubbed it "The Boss of the Plains."  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.  It is a powerful symbol which has strong elements of conflict and violence ingrained deeply in its history.  Among collectors of western memorabilia, an old Stetson with a bullet hole is a very special item to have in one's collection.

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, and, as Stetson Kennedy has pointed out to me, it is also a symbol of the lawman against the badman. 

Stetson hats were worn by many members of the air cavalry during the Vietnam War.  It was not government issue, so cavalrymen purchased them with their own funds.  According to the author of an article on the Internet titled "The Stetson Cavalry Hat", the headgear instilled "fierce pride and loyalty" in the airmen, and several of them who had been shot down returned to their burning aircraft to retrieve their hats from the flames.