Long Form Journalism on Secret London, Murder Ballads, and other topics of interest
September 22, 2009 9:17 AM   Subscribe

What do Cliff Edwards (1928), Lloyd Price (circa 1959), The Rulers (1967), R.L. Burnside (late 1980s/ early 1990s), Grateful Dead (live in 1993), and Nick Cave (live in 1996) have in common? If nothing else, they all sang some variation of the crime of Lee Shelton, also known as Stack O'Lee, Stagolee, Stack-a-Lee , Stackerlee, Stagger Lee and other names, with as many variations in the details of that fateful night. Join MeFite Paul Slade with his journalistic narrations of murder ballads, tales of Secret London (previously), and other works of long-form journalism (which may or may not be ideal for the web, previously). [via mefi projects; more clips and bits inside]

Of the three murder ballads currently covered on PlanetSlade, Stagger Lee is the most commonly covered, with some counts tallying tributes by more than 400 different artists. The version of Stagger Lee by Lloyd Price (then and now) is apparently the most common version to start from, with covers by Ike and Tina, Isley Brothers, Wilson Picket, Bob Lumen, Tommy Quickly (wiki), and Huey Lewis And The News, P.J. Proby (wiki), amongst others.

Burnside's version, from the 2001 compilation of of tunes and interviews, recorded between 1986 and 1993, called Well...Well...Well (perhaps named for his filler phrase), was covered by Samuel L. Jackson in Black Snake Moan. More fun with Stack-o-Lee: how to play a version by Mississippi John Hurt. Yet another version was performed by The Rulers, entitled Wrong Emboyo, from 1967 on a Jamaican single on the Sir JJ label, UK single (Rio R 132) with Why Don't You Change on the b-side, 1967, produced by JJ Johnson. This song was covered by The Clash on their 1979 album London Calling, with the song re-titled as "Wrong 'em Boyo." Versions of this song have also been titled "Wrong Embryo." For further deconstruction of the song, check The Stagger Lee Files (moving from geocities, which was covered previously).

Frankie and Johnny may be behind Stack-o-Lee/ Stagger Lee in the count of covers (wikipedia states "at least 265 versions") but the tale that started before Allen Britt was dead lives on, from the movie of the same name featuring Elvis and Donna Douglas to Lindsay Lohan as Lola Johnson from A Prairie Home Companion (the movie), as well as Johnny Cash (once or twice), Chet Atkins, Dr. John, and more, with 10 versions of the lyrics at Bluegrass Messengers. Going way back, here is Frank Crumit's version from 1927.

Knoxville Girl is the story that goes beyond the shores of the United States, and before there were states to unite, though it has found a home in relatively modern country music. Hear "a confession sung in the first person" from Arthur Tanner and His Corn Shuckers, recorded in 1927; The Louvin Brothers in years past, and recently performed by Charlie Louvin and friends (along with further write-up on the ballad and the performers). Also: Wilburn Brothers, Jim and Jesse in 1976, and Nick Cave.
posted by filthy light thief (29 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Thats better! Way to preview and way to get a great post!
posted by wheelieman at 9:24 AM on September 22, 2009

Wow. Nice.
posted by Artw at 9:27 AM on September 22, 2009

Stagger Lee is one of the best American folk songs. My favorite version (unfortunately not available online) is Stagolee from the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio Dog Days album.
posted by Pants! at 9:31 AM on September 22, 2009

Thats better! Way to preview and way to get a great post!

Shh, that earlier effort doesn't exist any more =)
posted by filthy light thief at 9:39 AM on September 22, 2009

yeah, that PlanetSlade project is phenomenal, and so is this post.
posted by shmegegge at 9:41 AM on September 22, 2009

I have often thought that I could listen to "Stagger Lee" all day without getting tired of it. Looks like filthy light thief is calling my bluff.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:43 AM on September 22, 2009

If you don't make it all day, at least you can listen to variations long enough to read the 9 pages of detailed history of Stagger Lee, plus the other sites dedicated to the minutae of the song(s).
posted by filthy light thief at 9:48 AM on September 22, 2009


Awesome post, however.
posted by mosk at 9:48 AM on September 22, 2009

Oops, just saw that the above included mention of the previous FPP. Never mind -- carry on.
posted by mosk at 9:50 AM on September 22, 2009

Well played. I tip my (Stetson) hat to your research and links.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:50 AM on September 22, 2009

Glad this post finally made it up! Well researched and awesome as always, flt.
posted by HumanComplex at 9:52 AM on September 22, 2009

oh my lord. wow.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:18 AM on September 22, 2009

MeFi strikes again. Not ten days ago i was driving along and my ipod mix randomly paired the Dead and the Clash, and I got to wondering about Stagger Lee...
Excellent post Filthy, just excellent.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:21 AM on September 22, 2009

Nice post.

I also like the Black Keys 'Stack Shot Billy' a lot (there might be a link to it in there somewhere).

If you like books, Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix's cultural-historical graphic novel Stagger Lee and Cecil Brown's history Stagolee Shot Billy are both highly recommended.
posted by box at 10:24 AM on September 22, 2009

Came inside for "Wrong 'Em Boyo". Left satisfied.
posted by gimonca at 11:18 AM on September 22, 2009

Very nice post.
posted by OmieWise at 12:06 PM on September 22, 2009

No wonder record producers are despairing.

Clearly this is the right place for that! So much history. So much despair.

I like this one: William Harrison.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:17 PM on September 22, 2009

I like this one: William Harrison.

What kind of microphone is that? The cigarette smoking in the ashtray is a nice touch.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:00 PM on September 22, 2009

When on the topic of murder ballad back stories, one should remember the name of John Garst. He was a pioneer on such matters. This is an excellent post, all the same.
posted by y2karl at 1:03 PM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great post. Taj Mahal introduced me to Frankie and Albert many years ago.
posted by Sailormom at 3:51 PM on September 22, 2009

I dig the cussin' in Nick Cave's take.
posted by ovvl at 4:39 PM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Music is a commodity. For years, the prices were fixed. Now the free market is in place and the music industry is flat footed. They cannot accept that "a bushel of coldplay" sells for $4 rather than for the $18 that they think it is worth. That worth is not based on consumer's value it but rather it is based on what the music industry wants to be paid. Where are the free market capitalists here?
posted by zerobyproxy at 9:03 PM on September 22, 2009

This is cool if only for the fact that I've never heard the Ruler's original version of Wrong 'em Boyo. Another fantastic post filthy light thief!
posted by eyeballkid at 9:47 PM on September 22, 2009

What a great post, filthy light thief. Hats off to you. I used to make posts like this (every now and then about as ambitious as this one) but I'm retiring, now. This place is in good musical hands!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:38 AM on September 23, 2009

You forgot Bob Dylan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Gone_Wrong
posted by antihostile at 7:03 AM on September 23, 2009

Bob Dylan - Stack A Lee (lyrics and song sample).

Old Stack O'lee Blues - Sidney Bechet, The Harlem Ramblers live in 2002, Saints Jazz Band on a 78 RPM record, and version with vocals by Ken Colyer Skiffle Group.

flapjax - I will gladly follow your footsteps, though I hope to still see you around and about.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:10 PM on September 23, 2009

filthy light thief, no, I'm not bowing out entirely! As the Spinners said, I'll be around! But I have slowed the posting pace down considerably, largely due to time constraints. But I just meant to say, really, that you're making some great posts, and keep up the good work!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:52 PM on September 23, 2009

posted by filthy light thief at 8:05 AM on September 24, 2009

Today WFMU had a whole 3 hour show of these and other covers of this song.
posted by wheelieman at 2:51 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

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