Sunday, July 20, 2003

David L. Ulin

p. R5.

The devil, the reality and Stagolee

Stagolee Shot Billy, [by] Cecil Brown, Harvard University Press: 296 pp., $29.95

I first encountered Stagolee in a song by the Grateful Dead. It was 1978, and I was a senior in high school, fascinated by the mythic folklore that seemed to run beneath the polished surfaces of American life like strands of hidden DNA. With Stagolee (or Stagger Lee, as Dead lyricist Robert Hunter called him), I felt I'd found an embodiment of this underside of America, a pimp who gunned down another black man named Billy Lyons in a bar on Christmas for winning his Stetson hat in a dice game. In the Dead's version, Billy's widow ultimately shot Stagger Lee when the police proved too cowardly to make an arrest. Even as she pulled the trigger, the focus of the song remained on Stagger, a man so bad he stood outside the law.

This, I would soon learn, had been the character's appeal for more than three-quarters of a century, through an astonishing variety of song styles and permutations, as he moved from African American street and blues culture to the more mainstream territory of rock 'n' roll. Within a year, I'd hear Mississippi John Hurt's transcendent "Stack O'Lee Blues," recorded in 1928, and the propulsive ska/punk of the Clash's "Wrong 'Em Boyo," in which Joe Strummer wails "Stagolee met Billy / And they got down to gambling" over a barrelhouse roll of organ, guitar and drums. Stagolee, it turned out, was a rebel icon.

The idea of Stagolee as a kind of covert archetype resides at the heart of Cecil Brown's "Stagolee Shot Billy," a blend of sociology, mythology, musicology and even personal narrative that excavates the history of the legend and the song. Brown, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, is the author of two novels that, in their own ways, deal with the territory of African American myth. In "Stagolee," he tells not just a story but also what it means. His challenge is to record Stagolee's status and to understand it as a cultural key.

While growing up on a North Carolina tobacco farm in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he says, "the most important legend to me was that of Stagolee. As chanted in the form of a 'toast' by my Uncle Lindsey, the narrative presented a young god of virility. In those days, to young black field hands sitting in the shade of a tree at the end of the tobacco road, Stagolee was as impulsive, as vulgar, as daring, and as adventurous as they wanted him (and themselves) to be At the end of the day the same men gathered in J.C. Himes's jook joint to dance with the girls, drink whiskey, and fight. Their nocturnal activities, I thought, were an extension of Stagolee's."

It's tempting to read "Stagolee Shot Billy" as a biography of a cultural idea. Equally important is Brown's deconstruction of the myth's origins. Stagolee, Brown tells us, may be an archetype, but one with a basis in real events. The name refers to a St. Louis pimp named Lee Shelton (also known as "Stack Lee") who, on Christmas night 1895, shot Billy Lyons in a barroom dispute. Lest we read this as coincidence, Brown tracks the murder and its aftermath, finding correlations to the documentary record in variants of the song. One features Shelton's defense attorney ("Don't be afraid, Stack, Nat Dryden is by your side"); others refer to his girlfriend Lilly or to Judge David Murphy, who signed his murder indictment. As to why, a century later, any of that would still resonate, Brown provides a mini-history of 19th century black St. Louis, where pimps, or "macks" — extravagantly dressed "urban strollers" who were precursors to the "mack daddies" of contemporary hip-hop culture — were seen as romantic heroes for their ruthless self-determinism, powerful in a culture that denied power to African Americans. Many macks, Brown notes, were community leaders, running clubs (Lee Shelton's was the Modern Horseshoe Club) that, besides offering gambling, prostitution and mixed-race dancing, lent political support to sympathetic candidates. In 1896, after Missouri Republicans failed to stand up to police racism, these clubs "[moved] toward the Democratic party"; Democrats took 90% of the black vote in the fall.

All this adds up to a cultural context in which the Stagolee myth might bloom. Like the song itself, "Stagolee Shot Billy" is not about a lone interpretation; rather, Brown methodically takes us through a range of iterations, layering the legend in a way that mirrors the oral tradition from which it evolved. Brown suggests Shelton's nickname may have come from a riverboat called the Stack Lee, which was celebrated among blacks for its speed, cuisine and easy access to prostitutes. "[I]f Lee Shelton was a pimp even before arriving in St. Louis," he conjectures, "the epithet 'Stack Lee' would have fitted him admirably. Using epithet in this way is much like what contemporary rappers do when they adopt stage names instead of using their own." The boats themselves open a wide window onto black America, since a riverboat couldn't operate without a crew of black freight hands, called "roustabouts or rousters."

"Black men and boys fed the voracious boiler, loaded the deck, served in the cabins, tearoom, and saloon — and sang." Not only did riverboats enable "Stagolee" — in the form of toasts, blues and ballads — to travel easily from community to community, they also made the song a part of river culture, which included prison work camps, where the idea of Stagolee as "a hero in evil, a Good/Bad figure" took hold. "In every prison," Brown writes, "at least one work song was about Stagolee. Like the riverboat roustabouts decades earlier, the prisoners sang about Stagolee and the devil, who was a white man."

The presence of the devil in a song whose roots lie in a barroom murder illustrates, in a fundamental sense, the way myth works, the way an anecdote may become a symbol, and speak to issues far beyond its original concerns. It highlights one more thing: our need for heroes who can face any adversary, even death and sin. It's no accident that Stagolee is now seen as a figure of resistance, celebrated by James Baldwin, who once wrote a poem about him, or Bobby Seale, who invoked him as a spiritual guide for the Black Panthers ("Now I transformed Stagolee, more or less in my own mind, into brothers standing on the block and all of the illegitimate activity") and even named his son "Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale." Nor should it surprise us that his influence crossed over into the white counterculture, as embodied by the Clash and the Grateful Dead. After all, on the fringes, the common perceptions of good and bad, hero and villain are often flipped, turning social strictures inside out. This is the role of art, of activism; this is the role of so archetypal a character.

"Like Stagolee," Brown writes, "the African-American male is always a stranger in his own native land… [He] is a perspective, a point of view… Thus Stagolee continues his progress by word of mouth from one generation to the next."

David L. Ulin is the editor of "Another City: Writing From Los Angeles" and "Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology."

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