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STAGGER LEE (1969) by Taj Mahal

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Uploaded on Nov 5, 2009

My favourite Taj Mahal album is 'De Ole Folks at Home', which includes this track. His feel for roots music on that album is incredible. It would be great to hear him do another album by himself again with just acoustic instruments such as guitar and banjo like he did on that album.

Stagger Lee is a popular blues folk song covered many times which is based on a murder by Stagger Lee Shelton. The first published version of the song was by folklorist John Lomax in 1910. The song was well-known in African American communities along the lower Mississippi River by the 1910s.

Before World War II, it was commonly known as "Stack O Lee". W.C. Handy wrote that this probably was a nickname for a tall person, comparing him to the tall smokestack of the large steamboat Robert E. Lee. By the time W.C. Handy wrote that explanation in the 1920s, "Stack O' Lee" was already familiar in United States popular culture, with recordings of the song made by such artists such as Herb Wiedoeft and his band (1924), Frank Hutchison (1927), Mississippi John Hurt (1928) and Cliff Edwards (1928). In Hurt's version, as in all such pieces, there are many (sometimes anachronistic) variants on the lyrics. Several older versions give Billy's last name as "De Lyons" or "Deslile".

There are many different versions of the tale, but the general storyline is as follows: Stagger Lee (as well as Stack O' Lee, also known as Stagolee, Stackerlee, Stackalee etc.) gets into a dispute with a man named Billy DeLyon after losing his Stetson hat to Billy while gambling. Stagger Lee pulls a gun--sometimes identified as a .45, other times as a "smokeless .44"--on Billy who then pleads to be spared for the sake of his wife and children. Showing no compassion at all, Stagger Lee cold-bloodedly shoots and kills his opponent.

The killer's reputation for "badness" is a key to the story. According to some classic musical recordings of the legend (such as "Mississippi" John Hurt's "Stack O'Lee Blues"), the authorities are too frightened of Stagger Lee to arrest him for his crime. In some versions of the tale, he is eventually caught by the authorities, but the judge refuses to sentence him to prison because he fears that the badman will strike back against him. In certain tellings of the story, Stagger Lee appears in hell after he is killed or executed, but is so "bad" that he takes control of the devil's kingdom and turns it into his own badman's paradise. (Sources: The AKA Blues Connection's Stagger Lee Files and Wiki. The drawings in the video are by Timothy Lane and McCulloch/Hendrix).

I have done a slideshow video for this song and to try and help tell the story.

Ratings and comments are invited.

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