Book Review: Stagolee Shot Billy
by Cecil Brown
Publication Date: May 22, 2003
List Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Imprint: Harvard University Press
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Parent Company: Harvard University
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Book Reviewed by Thumper
It was because of my mother's and aunt Janice's love of 60's soul music that I first encountered and fell in love with Wilson Pickett singing "Stagger Lee". Decades later when I started buying my own music, I bought the Wilson Pickett's Greatest Hits CD package that contained "Stagger Lee". I can't say why I was so fascinated with a song that described a man begging for his life, and how the bullet killing him broke the bartender's glass. But, I was. The legend of "Stagger Lee" captured and held my attention for many years.
The night was clear and the moon was yellow,
And the leaves came tumbling down.
I was standin' on the corner when I heard my bulldog bark;
He was barkin' at the two men who gamblin' in the dark.
It was Stagger Lee and Billy, two men who gambled late.
Stagger Lee threw seven, Billy swore that he threw eight.
Stagger Lee told Billy, "I can't let you go with that.
You have won all my money and my brand new Stetson hat."
Stagger Lee started off goin’ down that railroad track.
He said, ’I can't get you Billy, but don't be here when I come back.’
Stagger Lee went home and got his forty-four
Said, "I'm goin' to the barroom just to pay that debt I owe.’
Stagolee went to the barroom and he stood across the barroom door
He said, ’Nobody move,’ and he pulled his forty-four.
Stagger Lee shot Billy, oh he shot that poor boy so bad
Till the bullet came through Billy and it broke the bartender's glass.
-- "Stagolee Shot Billy" by Cecil Brown
Earlier this year when I became aware that Cecil Brown would soon be
publishing a book titled Stagolee Shot Billy, I was intrigued. Finally, I
thought, someone was going to deliver a fictional account of ol' Stagolee and
Billy Lyons. I was wrong. Stagolee Shot Billy is not a fictionalized account of
the soul- folktale that Wilson Pickett sang years ago. Stagolee Shot Billy is
the history of the folk song, from its origin in 1895, up to and including its
many transformations and names over the past century.
Brown examines the social effects of the Stagolee legend; how the ballad benefited from the African American oral tradition and became its finest example; what Stagolee as an antihero meant to African Americans through the years; and how the song was one of the predecessors to gangsta rap. The book also establishes Stagolee's rightful place in American history and folk myths along with John Henry, Paul Bunyan, and others.
Stagolee Shot Billy was a joy that went down nice and easy. I savored the book like ice cream on a hot summer day. Brown began by addressing the most obvious question: Were Stagolee and Billy Lyons real people, or mythical creations? Surprisingly, they actually existed. In St. Louis, Missouri, on Christmas Eve 1895, "Stack" Lee Shelton shot and killed Billy Lyons at a bar after Lyons had taken Shelton's Stetson hat. Brown meticulously, remarkably, brings "Stack" Lee Shelton, and Billy Lyons to life by piecing together the known aspects of their lives, the murder, the social and political environment surrounding the murder, possible motives behind the shooting and the final outcome of the principals after the murder. I was enthralled.
When Brown turned his attention to the song and its many transformations and versions -- as the oral tradition wove its way through time and across miles of fields, rivers and highways -- his skills as a writer shone through like a diamond. Brown was informative without being boring. I couldn't believe my luck that a literary analysis of this depth was actually enjoyable. Then I got nervous, waiting for the pleasant flow to come to an end and for the boring part to start. Fortunately, the book was entrancing from beginning to end.
I was equally captivated when Brown expounded on what Stagolee, the anti-hero, meant to blacks who labored under inhumane conditions, from the backbreaking sharecropper fields and section gangs, to work camps. Brown argues that ballads such as Stagolee and Frankie and Johnny laid the musical foundation for gangsta rap, and his logic is air tight and waterproof.
Stagolee Shot Billy is a book of considerable historical importance. While it is written in a style and tone that belies an academic examination, it offers impeccable scholarly worth by explaining the merit and relevance of the folk song. I couldn't put it down. Stagolee Shot Billy accomplishes the dual feats of being both educational and entertaining. It is an outstanding book!