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Stagolee Shot Billy

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ISBN-13: 978-0674016262
ISBN-10: 0674016262
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In "Stagolee," one of history's best-known blues songs, a dispute between Billy Lyons and a "bad man" called Stagolee ends in a shooting; variations of the ballad have been recorded by hundreds of musicians, from Mississippi John Hurt and Champion Jack Dupree to Peggy Lee, Ike and Tina Turner, Bob Dylan and Nick Cave. But for all the song's incarnations, little is known definitively about its origins: Who was Stagolee-or Stacker Lee, or Stack-o-lee? Scholar and author Brown (The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger) sets out to answer that question by presenting Lee Shelton, a.k.a. "Stack Lee," a pimp who shot Billy Lyons in a barroom in 1895; probing the seamy St. Louis milieu that served as the murder's backdrop; and tracing the song's history through the decades-from the eight stanzas sent to music archivist John Lomax in 1910, through 1920s white "hillbilly" versions and 1940s prison renditions and up to its influence on present-day rap music. Yet the book is more than a musical history; it considers "Stagolee as a black oral narrative and the rich relationship it reveals between oral literature and social life." Brown addresses the legend's place in an evolving African-American consciousness and draws upon the works of luminaries like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison (he skillfully employs Freud, Levi-Strauss and Walter Benjamin as well). Brown's tone at times becomes dry and academic, and his occasional generalizations are jarring in such an otherwise thoughtful work. The book is intelligent and illuminating-and a smattering of illustrations livens it up-but it will likely be of more interest to serious musicologists and historians than casual blues fans.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


In Stagolee Shot Billy...Brown revisits the archetypal story of "someone who was willing to defend himself if transgressed against, if his dignity was at stake." Songs about Stagolee have long been a staple of African-American music, with recordings by Ma Rainey, Duke Ellington, and Fats Domino...To analyze the legend, Mr. Brown draws on structuralist and formalist thinkers such as Mikhail Baktin, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Vladimir Propp...But where another scholar might explicate a few symbols and call it a day, Brown has pursued the tale to its origins--a bar fight in St. Louis in 1895, during which a saloonkeeper named Lee Shelton shot William Lyons when a friendly game of cards went wrong. (Scott McLemee Chronicle of Higher Education 2003-03-14)

In a St. Louis tavern on Christmas night in 1895 Lee Shelton (a pimp also known as Stack Lee) killed William Lyons in a fight over a hat. There were other murders that night, but this one became the stuff of legend. Songs based on the event soon spread out of whorehouses and ragtime dives across the country. Within 40 years, Stagolee had evolved into a folk hero, a symbol of rebellion for black American males. With commendable scholarship and thoroughness, Brown shows how we got from the murder to the myth. (Leopold Froehlich Playboy 2003-03-06)

Novelist and professor Brown...delves into the historical and social underpinnings of the Stagolee myth, which has inspired numerous songs and shaped American culture. Tracing the source of the legend, he describes in detail the shooting and killing of bully Billy Lyons by flashy pimp Lee Shelton (a.k.a. Stagolee) for snatching his hat in a St. Louis bar...and Shelton's subsequent trial and imprisonment. He links the incident to the swirl of corrupt St. Louis politics embodied in violent and warring black social clubs that controlled bootlegging, gambling, and a flourishing prostitution trade...Thoroughly researched, fast moving, and well written, this is the first book to unearth the basis of the Stagolee legend (others mostly deal with its social implications) and will appeal to those interested in understanding American cultural history. (Dave Szatmary Library Journal 2003-03-15)

You don't have to know the ballad about Stagolee, the black anti-hero who shot and killed his old friend Billy over a hat in a bar one Christmas night in 1895 in Deep Morgan, the vice district of St. Louis, to enjoy Cecil Brown's telling of the story behind the song...Brown, who grew up on the myth in the 1950s and 60s on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, reconstructs the very night when Lee Shelton dressed like a pimp in St. Louis flats and a "high-roller, milk-white Stetson"...wandered into the Bill Curtis Saloon in the Bloody Third District. Brown's reconstruction of the bordello culture in St. Louis is reminiscent of fin de siècle Vienna, portraying a kind of hysteria that played out on the stage and in the streets. (Susan Salter Reynolds Los Angeles Times Book Review 2003-03-23)

In Stagolee Shot Billy, the novelist Cecil Brown tracks the history of the song "as a black oral narrative and the rich relationship it reveals between oral literature and social life." Along the way he has a lot to say about how music functions as a form of memory, advancing through the popular culture...Brown's industrious research begins at the primal event...In his reconstruction of the legal events that sent Shelton to jail, Brown shows how the black Tenderloin district functioned in white ward-heeling politics of the day...Brown also trains his lens on Stagolee as a mythical presence in literature...By surrounding the Stagolee figure in a constellation of ways, as part of folklore, music history, literary scholarship and culture studies, with a supporting cast of writers and scholars whose words are given fair and generous use, Brown puts on a good postmodern show. (Jason Berry New York Times Book Review 2003-04-27)

Hip-hop scholarship has become an overcrowded industry, yet few have delved into the roots of this international phenomenon. Cecil Brown traces the roots of the black-gangster aesthetic to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century bad-nigger ballads, the most prominent of which was 'Stagolee.' This outstanding scholarship is marked by the unique analytical approach that we have conic to expect from Cecil Brown. (Ishmael Reed)

This book sings like the sound beneath the song within the song about the song. Telling it like it 't - i - is! Like a literary griot (gree-oh !), Cecil Brown transfers this longenduring African-American song from oral tradition to the printed page. Along the way, lie places the song in the context of the times from which it sprang. The amount of artistry the book documents--touching all Americans but focusing on the African-American contribution, or wellspring-is formidable and awe-inspiring. (Taj Mahal)

Stagolee tanks among the most important figures in African-American folklore--the quintessential bad man' in black folklore. Brown makes a very compelling case linking Stagolee to the historical figure named Lee Shelton." (David L. Smith Williams College)

An infinitely fascinating exploration of nearly all facets of the Stagolee ballad, the archetype, the countless tales surrounding both, and their passage through time. (Greil Marcus)

The story which went into the song, and the story of the song, required a big storyteller, willing to train on the fly in lots of disciplines, to do detective work, to make judgments, and to make startling connections. Brown writes learnedly and passionately on Stagolee and political infighting in a very particular St. Lotus time and place, as well as on hip-hop and long traditions of what Walter Benjamin called the 'destructive character. (David R. Roediger University of Illinois)

Stagolee Shot Billy provides a fascinating biography of the song ['Stagolee'], from its shadowy birth in the ragtime era to its afterlife in the age of hip-hop--an evolution, by way of innumerable variants and alternative readings, that shows how vividly a single item of oral culture can reflect changing times. (Gerald Mangan Times Literary Supplement 2003-08-29)

This entertaining book is the first to rigorously explore [the song's] origins in the St. Louis gang underworld. Brown paints a rich picture of the incident, traces the song's virus-like spread from blues to ragtime to pop, and figuring that it still moves people because, like most potent ancient black ballads, it is stark reportage with no moralising. Stagger Lee is not condemned, so he is free to live on in every badass to follow. (Paul McGrath MOJO 2003-12-01)

[A] probing and prescient and staggeringly well researched study...The historical revelations here are consistently--and insistently--fascinating; the voices brought in as chorus to help Brown vamp into theoretical detour range from Walter Benjamin and Bob Dylan to James Baldwin and Schooly D. (Ian Penman The Wire)

Stagolee Shot Billy constitutes a most valuable examination of African American folklore and folkways. It offers extremely well-documented facts and a conscientious scholarly approach, while, like the narrative itself, being highly entertaining. (David Diallo Journal of American Folklore)

Stagolee Shot Billy is one of the finest works in the field of cultural studies. Brown provides the reader with a fascinating narrative and an innovative analysis. This book is a must for anyone interested in the intersection of race and popular music in the 20th century. (Stanley Arnold Popular Music and Society)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (September 30, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674016262
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674016262
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,314,888 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By E. N. Anderson VINE VOICE on June 20, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Anyone with even a slight acquaintance with the blues knows that Stagolee killed Billy Lyons over a brand-new Stetson hat. Stagolee thus became the prototypic baaad dude, the player who would coolly kill a man over fancy headgear. Until now, however, no one knew the real story, and most of us blues fans wondered if either of the gentlemen existed. In truth, "Stack" Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons in a barroom in the red-light district of St. Louis on Christmas Day, 1895. The ballad, now known in hundreds of versions, must have emerged soon afterward.
Cecil Brown has researched the full story--he even provides pictures of the death certificates. He situates the event in its full and rowdy context: the roaring, wide-open world of Mississippi River towns in the late 19th century, when liquor, prostitution, gambling, and violence were the order of the day. He goes on to trace the song through its long and chequered history; central to the blues, it has been enthusiastically adopted by hillbilly and folk singers, rockers, and many more.
Good studies of folklore have been rare lately. The glorious days of the 1960s folk revival are long over. It is thus doubly rewarding to see a really fine study of folk tradition. This book focuses on the literature side; it does not deal with the music (someone should write a companion volume). Brown does an excellent job of interpretation, bringing in just enough theory, not too much. His generalizations are useful and interesting. (I don't agree with "Publisher's Weekly"'s sour comments at the end of their note.) The world needs more books like this. I not only got stuck in it and read it in one sitting--I then sought out my worn old record of Long Cleve Reed and Papa Harvey Hull's superb performance from the 1920's, and played it three times over.
Right on, Cecil Brown.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Charles W. Anderson on January 14, 2005
Format: Paperback
I loved this book, but I share Mark Forrester's distress about the absolutely abysmal editing. The reference to Leon Gross as "Archibald Cox" is just laughable. There's also a name misspelled in the acknowledgements; something I've never run across before. This in a book published by Harvard University Press, for God's sake.

I nevertheless recommend the book with only the one caveat, albeit a rather large one -- don't quote anything you find here as fact without checking it out yourself. It could be something the fact checkers missed...
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Mark Forrester on December 31, 2004
Format: Paperback
I have to conclude that other reviewers have actually been reviewing their own ideas of what this book might have been. I wish I could give it such a favorable write-up myself. But despite the interesting information Brown provides about the historical background and recording history of this classic American song, the book itself is disappointingly repetitious, contradictory, sloppily edited and organized, and poorly written. At one point, Brown calls Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" (1982) the "first rap" record [page 92]; elsewhere, he speaks of rap's rising popularity "during the 1970s and 1980s" [222]. In one discussion, he attributes the same poem to both Margaret Walker [197] and Gwendolyn Brooks [199]. And in one paragraph, he claims both that "Madame Babe allowed May [Irwin] to adapt" a particular song and - two sentences later - that "May Irwin may have stolen" that song from Madame Babe [107]. Oh, and he extends New Orleans r&b pianist Archibald's stage name to "Archibald Cox," perhaps as a nod to the Watergate prosecutor [172]. Obviously, writing history based so extensively on oral tradition is going to be difficult, but virtually every other sentence in this book is qualified with a "maybe," "perhaps," or "possibly." Those qualifications are representative of Brown's approach to history, in which he bends the facts as best he can to fit his preconceived notions. Brown's study is filled with generalizations and over-simplifications, and his use of theory is heavy-handed and unconvincing. I'm glad that I read this book - I learned a lot about a subject that interests me, and I found many of Brown's speculations provocative - but, unless Brown is assigned a firm-handed editor for the next edition, I can only recommend it with an armful of caveats.
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The story of Stagolee (aka Stack O'Lee; Stagger Lee) has been told many times in song by artists as diverse as Doc Watson, Fats Domino, Lloyd Price and Bill Haley; and seemed to resurface anew in the early 70s as Jim Croce's "Leroy Brown". Author Cecil Brown has written a wonderfully researched story about this mercurial folk-villian, delving into the official archival news records of the time to track down the actual confrontation between a Lee Shelton and Billy Lyons, resulting in the shooting death that gave birth to the legend and the song, similar perhaps to the manner of events that gave birth to the equallly legendary "Wreck Of The Old 97".
This book is a very intriguing story, telling the story of both characters, the conditions of the town they lived in for this particular period in history--the late 1800s, and not that long after the Civil War had ended.
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Richard R on July 31, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you listen to American blues, rock, or folk music, you've heard about Stagolee. The Grateful Dead, the Clash, John Hurt, and dozens of others told a story about the night Stagolee shot Billy in a bar fight. The words may have varied, and the story may have seemed archetypical, but there was something going on here. Cecil Brown has traced the story to its origins: a bar in St. Louis's red light district in 1895, when Lee Shelton gunned down Billy Lyons because Lyons had touched his hat. Brown has done the research and provides interesting insights into urban culture and race relations in a time and place not far removed from slavery. He reviews different variations of the song, looks into the lives of the real-life protagonists, and discusses why the story made such a good source for songs for the next hundred years.
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