Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Poker Games can be Dangerous

This is the latest installation of cool old folk songs.  Hit the label "Folk" to see the rest on this blog.

Like with all good folk tunes, the song changes and evolves as it is sung and resung, sometimes differing greatly from the very first recordings to the most recent renditions.  The particular piece for this post is not really any one specific song, but rather songs about a specific event with specific characters.  

Stagger Lee Shelton was a famous St. Louis pimp in the late 1890s, of the group of pimps known at the time as the Macks.  The legendary story is as follows, told by many musicians.  Stagger Lee gets into an argument with Billy Lyons (or Billy DeLyon, or Billy Delisle), during a card game.  Somehow, Billy Lyon takes Stagger Lee's lucky hat, usually by winning at cards.  Stagger Lee then shoots him.  In the first versions of the song, there is no card game mentioned, which makes the crime appear more cold-blooded and impulsive.  

In the various versions of the song, Stagger Lee is often made out to be a trickster, a shyster, a wicked man, and even the devil himself.  Where as Billy Lyons is often a naive sucker unaware of the danger that Stagger Lee represents.  

The Grateful Dead version of the song is about Billy DeLyon's wife Deliliah and how she gets her revenge by shooting Stagger Lee in the balls.  This is actually the first version of the song I ever heard, and didn't realize Stagger Lee was part of the American Folk mythos until I heard Taj Mahal's version.  

Notable songs about Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons include: 
  • Stack O Lee Blues - Herb Wiedoeft
  • Stagolee - Mississippi John Hurt
  • Stagger Lee - Tommy Roe
  • Wrong 'em Boyo - The Clash
  • Stack Shot Billy - The Black Keys
Other artists to have either covered or written songs about these characters include Woody Guthrie, Professor Longhair, Bob Dylan, David Bromberg, Taj Mahal, Beck, James Brown, Duke Ellington, Pete Seeger, Doc Watson, and Pat Boone.  

Lyrics acoording to Taj Mahal, Tommy Roe, and Nick Cave

I was standing on the corner
When I heard my bulldog bark
He was barking at the two men
Who were gambling in the dark

It was Stagger Lee and Billy
Two men who gambled late
Stagger Lee threw a 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 went home
And he got his 44
Said, `I`m going to the bar room
Just to pay that debt that I owe`

Stagger Lee went to the bar room
And he stood across the bar room floor
Said, `now, nobody move`
And he pulled his 44

`Stagger Lee`, cried Billy
`Oh, please don`t take my life
I got three little children
And a very sickly wife`

Stagger Lee shot Billy
Boy, he shot that poor boy so bad
`Till the bullet came thru Billy
And it broke the bartender`s glass

Oh, Stagger Lee

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