James "Sparky" Rucker


[The Culture of Violence in the African-American Ballad Tradition]

Copyright © 2001 by James "Sparky" Rucker. All rights reserved.

(This essay was presented in April 2001 at the Cambridge Forum in Massachusetts and was aired in November 2001 on National Public Radio. It is for the personal use of students, scholars, and the public. Any commercial use or publication of it is strictly prohibited.)

Most African-American ballads, indeed most American ballads were penned, or “made up,” between 1875 and 1900 [in fact I’ve had numerous African-American songsters tell me, in answer to my question of “When did you write this song?” that they didn’t write it…but that they made it up, suggesting that there was NO pen OR pencil involved!].

This phenomenon can be explained in a number of ways such as the end of Manifest Destiny and the “idea” of the “frontier,” thereby recreating this “frontier” in song and legend. It could also be explained that the African-American ballad tradition only flourished after the Emancipation in the “Year of Jubilo” in 1865 [ten years hence].

This era gave rise to such legends as Pecos Bill and John Henry1. There were also real character legends such as Stagger Lee2, John Hardy3, Casey Jones, Jesse James, “Wild Bill” Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, and “Buffalo Bill.” Most of these “larger than life” characters took on “monumental” proportions and some elicited ballads about them.

The first of these “legends” I’d like to examine is “Stack-O-Lee” or “Stagger Lee.”4

My first knowledge of “Stagger Lee” was when I saw my cousin, Jefferson Robert Ross III known affectionately as “Butch,” come out onto the auditorium stage of Beardsley Jr. High School in Knoxville, TN. He was dressed in black jeans and leather jacket [with the collar turned up, a`la “Elvis Style”], dark sunglasses, and a cap pistol, as he lip-synched the words to soul-singer Lloyd Price’s song Stagger Lee. The girls were screaming in ecstasy [at least as much as a jr. high school girl could experience ecstasy, that is]. One could almost imagine a flash forward into the future and experiencing the same thrill while watching Arnold Swartzenagger mouthing the words “I’ll be back” in his persona as The Terminator. We all knew that “Stagger Lee was a bad man!”

When the Civil War reached it’s inevitable conclusion the country went back to it’s prime directive of “Manifest Destiny.” The vision of a nation that stretches from “Sea to Shinning Sea” was the driving factor in this enterprise. Getting to the frontier was always a problem and once a settlement was established the problem was, then, how to set up trade and re-supply? Before the rail system changed the course of the “industrial revolution,” early settlers used the rivers and streams to haul large cargo loads.

When the waterway did not precisely run in the direction they wanted to go they dug canals. The Erie, the Chesapeake & Delaware, the Illinois & Michigan, and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canals5 were marvels of their age and this phenomenon reached it’s peak in the building of the Panama and Suez Canals. River traffic clogged the natural waterways of our nation and from this there grew a remarkable culture. The main river which influenced our growth was the Mighty Mississippi… “the Father of Waters.” It’s early European explorers were the Arcadian French-Canadians. With the Fur Trade in full swing at that time the French Explorers, called “Voyagers,” were seen to ply their trade routes up and down the Mississippi. They established posts along the way with names like La Crosse, Prairie du Chien, Dubuque, St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. With these towns dotting the landscape along the Mississippi the culture had a decided French quality. The name of these Arcadians was “southernized” into “Cajuns,” and they plied their trade with efficiency.

After the Civil War this system, once again, flourished, and it helped to give birth to another culture, the “river culture.” This consisted of captains, pilots, hands, gamblers, show people, and loaders or stevedores. In the Mississippi River town of St. Louis lived a black man who worked as a stevedore. As he and his comrades worked loading and unloading the paddle wheelers they would often stack these items on the dock in preparation for the arrival of the next riverboat. They would stack this cargo out of the wind and rain…on the “lee” side of the dock. These stevedores became known as “stack-o-lees.” The name was changed through time and became stagolee or Stagger Lee. There is some evidence that Stagolee really existed. One version has it that he was a “Confederate cavalryman, son of a great old river captain, a steamboat officer, and a powerful lovin’ man…”6 An article in the Saint Louis Globe Democrat7 said he lived in St. Louis8 and owned a home there which still exists.

Saint Louis Globe Democrat
December 28, 1895
“William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o'clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon, also colored. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. The discussion drifted to politics and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon's hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. He was removed to the City Hospital. At the time of the shooting the saloon was crowded with negroes. Sheldon is a carriage driver and lives at 911 North Twelfth Street. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee."9

I received this nugget of historical information from my St. Louis friend Paul Stamler who got it from his friend, a man named Tom Freeland who researched this newspaper story. “Stag Lee was tried twice for this killing,” says Freeland. “ The first trial resulted in a hung jury amidst major political controversy. He was convicted in the second trial, served time, and died during the nineteen teens.” Freeland also added, “Judge Nathan B. Young of St. Louis, who I believe was the first African-American circuit judge in the state, talked to a lot of people who knew ‘Stag’ Lee Sheldon and William Lyons.” According to Freeland Judge Young lived for close to 100 years. The Judge always said that Lee Sheldon had gone to a hoodoo woman and obtained a spell to increase his sexual prowess. The talisman for that spell was his Stetson hat, and this was well-known in the community, so when Lyons snatched the hat off it was a serious insult indeed.”10

This legend of a man who was a powerful gambler, lover, and fighter captured the imagination of many southern blacks. In another version of the story a young “Cajun” named Billy De Lyon tried his mettle against “old Stag,” and when legal matters didn’t suffice he resorted to cheating and tried to claim Stagolee’s “magic” Stetson hat.11 Stagolee pulls a [cap and ball] .44 pistol and levels it at Billy, who pleads, in vain, for his life. Shots rang out and Billy lay dead on the floor of the barroom. Several versions of this ballad exist.12 In some versions he even defeats the Devil.13 In the 1950’s the Rhythm and Blues version was recorded by Lloyd Price after he heard Mississippi John Hurt’s version.

STAGGER LEE14 (Laws 1, #15)
Selected verses:
1. 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 that badman (badman) mean old Stagger Lee,
Talkin’ ‘bout that badman (badman) cruel old Stagger Lee.
2. It was Stagger Lee and Billy De Lyon, two men who gambled late,
Stagger Lee threw seven, Billy swore that he threw eight,
Messin’ with that badman, etc.
3. Stagger Lee told Billy De Lyon “I can’t let you go with that,
Done won all my money, now trying to take my Stetson Hat,”
(Can’t let ya) I’m a badman, etc.
4. Stagger Lee (child) he went home and he got his .44
Going down to that barroom just to pay that debt I owe,
I’m a badman, etc.
5. Stagger Lee went to that bar and stood across the barroom door,
Said “Nobody move!” then he pulled his .44,
He’s a badman, etc.
6. “Stagger Lee,” cried Billy De Lyon, “Please don’t take my life.
I’ve got three lovely children and a darling sickly wife.”
Don’t shoot me badman, etc.
7. “What do I care ‘bout your three l’il babes? What I care ‘bout your wife?
You tried to steal my magic hat an’ I’m bound to take your life.”
I’m a badman, etc.
8. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Boomity BOOM! Went that .44,
Billy De Lyon fell stone cold dead upon that barroom floor,
Shot by that badman, etc.
9. Standin’ on the gallows, head held up high,
At 12 o’clock they killed him…we was all glad to see him die,
Talkin’ ‘bout that badman, etc.
10. (You know it) could be on a rainy mornin’, could be on a rainy night,
Stagger Lee and Billy De Lyon got in a GREAT BIG FIGHT,
He was a badman, etc.

Another “bad man” was an Alabama turpentine worker named Lazarus. According to the legends he worked and lived in the piney wood mountains of northern Alabama working in the turpentine mills. Some dispute over pay caused Lazarus to tear up the place and “walk the table,” a practice of jumping upon the dinner table at the factory and walking it’s length placing one’s foot in every plate. He then broke into the commissary and stole the payroll. This would, of course, cause a riot, and for this action the “High Sheriff” was called in the arrest “Poor Lazarus.” The sheriff sent out his deputies and they cornered Lazarus “up between two mountains”15 where they gunned him down. They hauled his remains back to the commissary where they laid him out and sent for his family but he apparently died before they could get there.16

POOR LAZARUS17 (Laws 1, #12)
1. Oh well the High Sheriff, he told the deputy,
He said, “Go out and bring me Lazarus!” (2X)
“Bring him dead or alive! Oh! Lord! Bring him dead or alive!”
2. And the deputies began to wonder...
Where in the world they could find him? (2X)
A, well “I don’t know! Oh! Lord! I just don’t know!”
3. And they found poor Lazarus
Up between two mountains. (2X)
And they blowed him down! Oh! Lord!
They blowed him down!
4. And what they used,
What they used was a great big number (2)
Number .44! Oh! Lord! Colt .44!

1. Sparky Rucker, Heroes & Hard Times: Black American Ballads and Story Songs, (Originally published by Green Linnet, 1981), Tremont Productions, 1994. Hereafter cited as Heroes
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.; Part of this section was taken from my paper entitled “From the Middle Passage to the Titanic: the African-American Maritime Experience.” This paper was first presented at Mystic Seaport
5. Solveig Paulson Russell, The Big Ditch Waterways: The Story of Canals (New York: Parents’ Magazine Press, 1977), pp. 18-26, 27.
6. B. A. Botkin, A Treasury of Mississippi River Folklore: Stories, Ballads, Traditions and Folkways of the Mid-American River Country (New York: Bonanza Books, 1978, p. 251.
7. Paul Stamler to James “Sparky” Rucker [forwarded message Tom Freeland to Paul Stamler dated Tue. August 27, 1996] From an e-mail to the author dated 11/18/2000.
8. B. A. Botkin, ed., A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of the People (New York: Crown Publishers, 1944), p.128.
9. Stamler to Rucker, 11/18/2000, St. Louis Globe Democrat, December 28, 1895.
10. Ibid.
11. This legend became immersed in the “Voodoo” culture of Louisiana blacks, and further legends of the use of gris-gris and “goofer dust” on Stagolee’s hat began to surface. For more of the “hat” legend see Botkin, Treasury American, p.123.
12. Ibid., pp. 122-130; Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, eds., The Book of Negro Folklore (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1958), pp. 359-363; Julius Lester, Black Folktales (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1969), pp. 113-135; Harold Courlander, Negro Folk Music, U. S. A. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966, 1963), pp. 177-179. Recordings: “Mississippi John Hurt-1928 Sessions” (Newton: Yazoo Records Inc., 1990); “The Best of Mississippi John Hurt” (Santa Monica: Vanguard Records, 1987, 1970); Rucker, “Heroes.”
13. Lester, Folktales, pp. 134-135; Hughes & Bontemps, Negro Folklore, pp. 361-363; Botkin, Treasury American, 122-123126-130.
14. Rucker, “Heroes.”
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.

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