Although his story has been told countless times--by performers
from Ma Rainey, Cab Calloway, and the Isley Brothers to
Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, and Taj Mahal--no one
seems to know who Stagolee really is. Stack Lee? Stagger
Lee? He has gone by all these names in the ballad that
has kept his exploits before us for over a century. Delving
into a subculture of St. Louis known as "Deep Morgan,"
Cecil Brown emerges with the facts behind the legend to
unfold the mystery of Stack Lee and the incident that
led to murder in 1895.
How the legend grew is a story in itself, and Brown tracks
it through variants of the song "Stack Lee"--from early
ragtime versions of the '20s, to Mississippi John Hurt's
rendition in the '30s, to John Lomax's 1940s prison versions,
to interpretations by Lloyd Price, James Brown, and Wilson
Pickett, right up to the hip-hop renderings of the '90s.
Drawing upon the works of James Baldwin, Richard Wright,
and Ralph Ellison, Brown describes the powerful influence
of a legend bigger than literature, one whose transformation
reflects changing views of black musical forms, and African
Americans' altered attitudes toward black male identity,
gender, and police brutality. This book takes you to the
heart of America, into the soul and circumstances of a
legend that has conveyed a painful and elusive truth about
|To listen to music,
you will need the
“Bully of the Town,” Sid Harkreader & Grady Moore - St. Louis, 1895
Papa Harvey Hull and the Down Home Boys - Memphis, Tenn., 1927
Fruit Jar Guzzlers - North Carolina, 1927
Ma Rainey - Georgia, 1927
Bill hunt and Frank Hutchinson - West Virginia, 1927
Mississippi John Hurt - Mississippi, 1927
Furry Lewis - Mississippi, 1928
Duke Ellington - Washington, D.C., 1929
Unidentified Negro convict - Arkansas, Gould, 1934
Sidney Bechet - New Orleans, 1934
Buena Flynn, female inmate - Florida, Raiford., may, 1936
Albert Jackson, convict - Alabama, State Farm Prison., Oct. 1937
Lomax, Pianist, (700 AFC) - New Orleans, 1937
Lucious Curtis - Mississippi, Natchez, Oct. 19, 1940
a Black convict - Parchman Prison Farm, Mississippi, 1947
Hogman Maxey - Louisiana, 1959. Angola State Penitentiary
Lloyd Price - New Orleans, 1959
Dave Van Ronk - New York City, 1966
Toast - New York, 1967
Bob Dylan - Los Angeles, 1993
Taj Mahal - Berkeley, California, (London, England), 2002, and 1988
“Stagger Lee”, Nick Cave - Melbourne, Australia, 1997
The Clash - London, England
|Harvard University Press
Buy Books by Cecil Brown at Amazon.com
Comes To Berkeley
See Cecil Brown's independent film,
"TWO-FER" now playing in the Black
International Cinema 2003 film festival in Berlin
(May 8 - 11), Düsseldorf (May 22 - 25), Vienna (May
30 - June 4) and Ljubljana (June 11 - 15).
Director: Cecil Brown
Color, 41 min.
Synopsis: Calvin Hunter, 35, and his wife leave
Detroit, Michigan and travel across the U.S.A. to Montclair,
a rich neighborhood in San Francisco. Calvin is expecting
to settle into his new job with ease. A black man in a
film department? No easy task. The department is looking
for a "two-fer." After learning that the hiring Chairman
of the faculty is partial to women, Calvin decides to
put on a dress and compete with women in the academic
world. The film reaches its climax when the Chairman finally
discovers Calvin's charade. Calvin deftly outwits them
all in a financially rewarding exit from Montclair.
SHOT BILLY - by Cecil
Cecil Brown began his education at A & T College, Greensboro.
He has a B.A. from Columbia University in Comparative
Literature, a M. A. in English from the University of
Chicago, a Ph.D. from U C Berkeley in Narrative, African-American
Literature, and Folklore.
Cecil Brown in Person:
Thursday, May 8th
Booksmith - San Francisco, 7:00 p.m. 1644 Haight st.
(415) 863 8688
Saturday, May 24th
Marcus Books - Oakland, 6:30 p.m. 3900 Martin Luther King st
Thursday, June 26th Codyıs - Telegraph Ave, Berkeley
"Where's the magician?"
When I was about fourteen, we moved to the Green Swamp, North Carolina, to a tract of land where my father farmed. My grand daddy, Poppa Cecil, had bought a lot of land cheaply because it was submerged under water.
I had a mule named Big Red and I had to plow him before
and after school. I was bored until I discovered the
mail catalogue. From the mail, I became a magician.
At school, I drew attention to myself by performing
at the PTA, or either before or after regular meetings
of the student body. In front of the whole student body,
we would put on this trick in which I would hypnotize
my assistant, James Randell. It was well known that
James Randell was a genius, but that he was a wall flower.
Today he is an English professor at Coe College.
But after I hypnotized Randell, he would perform all of our popular dances -the jerk, the monkey, the Madison. The student would howl, especially because he danced incredibly well under my spell, but when I took the spell off him, he couldn't dance at all.
I did other tricks too. I disappeared smoking cigarettes, produced rabbits from a hat, and read serial numbers from dollar bills held up across the room. But the funniest thing that happened to me was a trip with our basketball team to Farmer's Union high school. I was always looking for a place to perform, so it turned out that I would do my trips during the half time at the basket ball games at our school.
So when the basketball team went to Farmer's Union High school, I got invited along. Instead of a college band (too poor to have a band), the basketball team had a magician-me.
As we pulled into the yard, we could see the fine looking Framer's Union girls waiting for the team. In our world, Farmer's Union women were mythically beautiful. They were different from our girls because they were mixed with Native Americans, specific Cherokee. They had nice faces and big, big legs.
I was the last to come off the bus. When I came off I
noticed that all of our boys were standing around looking
down in the mouth, and all these Farmer's Union girls
were coming to me. They say, "Where's the magician! Are
you the magician?"
I started doing my magic right then and there. The basketball team just stood around, while I got all of the attention.
I remember how different it felt to perform for people who didn't know me personally. All the other times, at my high school, everybody knew that it was me, Morris, "the Swamp Rabbit, who was the magician. Now these girls wanted to see me but didn't really know me (or care), but because I was the magician." I had a name outside my own personal world.
When I became a senior in high school, I abandon my role as high school magician, because I thought it was unbecoming of a scholar. I got to the point that I was embarrassed to be asked to do tricks.
But that feeling of having a "public" never left me. And I'll never forget the looks on those brothers' faces either. They were shocked (as I was too) that the girls ran past them and to me, crying for "the magician."
Additional books by Cecil Brown
Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger
Up Down Home: A Memoir of a Southern Childhood
|The New York Times
- The Story Behind a Mythic Blues Ballad
"Stagolee is looking at the world, but he is not visible;
these facts account both for his 'hidden' social history
and for the persistence of the myth, for Stagolee is antimyth,
the discontinuous, the speech act, and the blues aesthetic,"
Brown writes, "extending from the steamboat to the electronic
age in the American 21st century." - ..
- Jason Berry
(The New York Times, 4 / 27 / 2003)
In a St. Louis tavern on Christmas night in 1896 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, 3 / 6 / 2003)
The Chronicle of Higher Education
BAD TO THE BONE
His name is usually given as Stagolee, though sometimes it's Stagger Lee, or Stack O'Lee. Like other details, it varies, depending on who sings or recites the tale. But everyone agrees that he was one hard character. When Billy Lyons disrespected Stagolee by touching his fine Stetson hat, there was hell to pay. "Oh please spare my life/I got two little babies and an innocent wife!" pleaded Billy. It didn't matter: Stagolee shot him dead anyway.
"Growing up in North Carolina in the late l 950s, I heard
the story from my uncles and thought it was something
that happened in our area," says Cecil Brown, a visiting
scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. In
Stagolee Shot Billy, to be published next month by Harvard
University Press, Mr. 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.
The Stagolee "toasts" (rhymed oral performances) that
Mr. Brown heard from his uncles were a precursor of hip-hop.
The legend also left its mark on generations of African-American
writers, from Richard Wright to Mr. Brown himself. His
best-selling The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger,
published in 1969, was a picaresque novel a la Henry Fielding's
Tom Jones, infused with a Black Power sensibility.
- Scott McLemee
(Chronical of Higher Education, 3 / 14 / 2003)
Novelist and professor Brown (African American Studies,
Berkeley; The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger)
delves into the historical and social underpinnings of
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 in December 1895
and Shelton's subsequent trial and imprisonment. He links
the incident to a swirl of corrupt St. Louis politics
embodied in violent and warring social clubs that controlled
bootlegging, gambling, and a flourishing prostitution
trade. Brown continues with the evolution and transmission
of the Stagolee tale through the oral African American
tradition and ragtime, blues and rock'n'roll, showing
the transformation of the myth to suit the purposes and
social settings of the narrators. In a final section,
the author explorers the persistence of the Stagolee persona
in American literature, 1960's radical black politics,
and rap music. Thoroughly researched, fast moving, and
well written, this is the first book to unearth the basis
of Stagolee legend (others mostly deal with its social
implications) and will appeal to those interested in understanding
American cultural history.
- Dave Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle
(Library Journal, 3 / 15 / 2003)
The Guardian (UK)
In the red-light district of St Louis in 1895, a pimp shot a man dead in an argument over a hat. The ballad telling the story has been recorded by hundreds of bluesmen and jazzers - and even the Clash. It also helped create modern-day rap. Cecil Brown tells the remarkable tale of Stagolee.
- Charles English, Editor
Thursday May 08 2003
The Los Angeles Times
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.
"Stagolee," writes Brown, "is a metaphor that structures
the life of black males from childhood to maturity." He
compares the "bad black hero" to PuffDaddy, O.J. Simpson,
Malcolm X, Huey Newton (for all their differences). He
traces the transformation of the song from ballad to blues,
from pool hall to riverboat to work camp to Broadway.
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" -- with
an embroidered picture of his favorite girl on the headband
-- wandered into the Bill Curtis Saloon in the Bloody
Brown's reconstruction of the bordello culture in St.
Louis is reminiscent of fin de siecle Vienna, portraying
a kind of hysteria that played out on the stage and in
- LA Times