27 December, 2009

"Stackalee" - Frank Hutchison

Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Five: "Stackalee" performed by Frank Hutchison. "Vocal solo with harmonica, guitar." Recorded in New York on January 28, 1927. Original issue Okeh 45106 (W80-359A).

Frank Hutchison was born in West Virginia on March 20, 1897. He worked primarily as a coal miner, but for a period during the mid to late 1920s he was a professional musician, traveling with the medicine shows and recording. Living in close proximity to African-American musicians (particularly a man named Bill Hunt) allowed Hutchison to absorb the blues style emerging during the early part of the 20th century. Hutchison became one of the best white blues musicians of his day and was known as "the Pride of West Virginia." Although his recording career was short (barely three years) he managed to record over thirty songs. He was a neighbor of the Williamson Brothers and often performed with Dick Justice, both of whom also appear on the Anthology.

Hutchison played guitar, often laying the instrument in his lap and using a knife as a slide to change pitch. As noted in the entry on Nelstone's Hawaiians, this technique was a variation of the Hawaiian steel and slide guitar which gained tremendous popularity in the United States during the early 20th century, influencing both country music and blues. On this recording, however, Hutchison does not make use of the slide technique. Hutchison also played harmonica, which he hung from a rack around his neck in the style pioneered by Henry Whitter and made famous by later folk musicians, particularly Bob Dylan.

Following his music career, which ended with the coming of the Great Depression, Hutchison returned to mining and eventually saved enough money to buy a store in Lake, West Virigina, where he also served as postmaster. A fire led to the loss of his business and to the start of a drinking problem that would claim his life. He died in Dayton, Ohio on November 9, 1945 of an alcohol related liver ailment.

The harmonica is a free reed wind instrument primarily associated with folk, blues, and country music, although it is also used in jazz and rock and roll. According to the wikipedia entry on the instrument:

It is played by blowing air into it or drawing air out by placing lips over individual holes (reed chambers) or multiple holes. The pressure caused by blowing or drawing air into the reed chambers causes a reed or multiple reeds to vibrate up and down creating sound. Each chamber has multiple, variable-tuned brass or bronze reeds which are secured at one end and loose on the other end, with the loose end vibrating and creating sound.

Reeds are pre-tuned to individual tones, and each tone is determined according to the size of reed. Longer reeds make deep, low sounds and short reeds make higher-pitched sounds. On certain types of harmonica the pre-tuned reed can be changed (bending a note) to another note by redirecting air flow into the chamber. There are many types of harmonicas, including diatonic, chromatic, tremolo, orchestral, and bass versions.

The earliest harmonicas were sold in Vienna during the 1820s and became hugely popular in the late 19th century, thanks to its low price and portability. The harmonica emigrated to the United States in the 1850s where it rapidly caught on. President Abraham Lincoln was known to carry a harmonica in his pocket and the instrument was used by soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. The instrument proved extremely adaptable to various styles of music. The harmonica is also quite popular in Japan, where it was introduced in 1898, and in Hong Kong (introduced in the 1930s) and Taiwan (where it was introduced in 1945).

Like the legend of John Henry, the story of Stackalee (a.k.a. Stackolee, Stack-O-Lee, or Stagger Lee) is believed to be based on historical fact. Lee Shelton was an African American cab driver and pimp who was convicted of the murder of William Lyons on December 24, 1895 in St. Louis, Missouri. The story, as reported by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, is as follows:

William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, 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, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. 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. 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. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as 'Stag' Lee.

Shelton (note the misspelling of his name in the article) was known to be a member of a notorious St. Louis gang known as the Macks who trafficked in prostitution. Shelton was tried and convicted of shooting William Lyons and died in prison of tuberculosis in 1912.

This seemingly unremarkable act of drunken violence was immortalized in song shortly after the incident, making Shelton an archetype of the violent but streetwise black man. The Stagger Lee family of songs has become among the most sung and recorded American songs. One estimate places the number of recordings of this song at over four hundred, including recordings by Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, the Clash, the Grateful Dead, the Black Eyed Peas, and Lloyd Price, who had a hit with the song in 1959.

Some folklorists, however, claim that the song predates the 1895 shooting and that Lee Shelton's nickname (Stag) derived from the song, and not the other way around.

Hawlin Alley on a dark and drizzly night,
Billy Lyons and Stackalee had one terrible fight.
All about that John B. Stetson hat.

Stackalee walked to the bar-room, and he called for a glass of beer,
Turned around to Billy Lyons, said, "What are you doin' here?"
"Waitin' for a train, please bring my woman home."

"Stackalee, oh Stackalee. please don't take my life.
Got three little children and a-weepin', lovin' wife.
You're a bad man, bad man, Stackalee."

"God bless your children and I'll take care of your wife.
You stole my John B., now I'm bound to take your life."
All about that John B. Stetson hat.

Stackalee turned to Billy Lyons and he shot him right through the head,
Only taking one shot to kill Billy Lyons dead.
All about that John B. Stetson hat.

Sent for the doctor, well the doctor he did come,
Just pointed out ol' Stackalee, said, "Now what have you done?"
You're a bad man, bad man, Stackalee."

Six big horses and a rubber-tired hack,
Taking him to the cemetery, buy they failed to bring him back.
All about that John B. Stetson hat.

Lookin' for ol' Stackalee, then!

Hawlin Alley, thought I heard the bulldogs bark.
It must have been old Stackalee stumbling in the dark.
He's a bad man, gonna land him right back in jail.

How'd they catch ol' Stackalee?

High police walked on to Stackalee, he was lying fast asleep.
High police walked on to Stackalee, and he jumped for forty feet.
He's a bad man, gonna land him right back in jail.

Well, they got old Stackalee and they laid him right back in jail.
Couldn't get a man around to go Stackalee's bail
All about that John B. Stetson hat.

Stackalee said to the jailer, "Jailer, I can't sleep.
'Round my bedside Billy Lyons began to creep."
All about that John B. Stetson hat.

Frank Hutchison's performance of this song is raucus, matching the rowdy barroom setting. Hutchison's version of the song leaves out the political argument that lead to Lyons snatching Shelton's hat, as well as the fact that both Shelton and Lyons were drunk at the time. The song also has Lyons shot through the head rather than the stomach. The murder seems cold blooded and practically motiveless, while the constant repetition of the lines "all about that John B. Stetson hat" point up the trivial nature of the dispute. In this version, as in most versions of this song, Billy Lyons begs for his life in the name of his wife and children. Shelton's response, "I'll take care of your wife," could be read to mean that Shelton will support or otherwise remunerate Mrs. Lyons for the death of her husband, or it could be read as a threat to have sex with her.

My thanks to Charlie, a reader who hipped me to the book Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown. I definitely plan to check this out in the near future...

After the heroic tale of John Henry and his hammer, we return to songs about bad men (and one bad woman). "Stackalee" marks the first of three songs in a row to feature a shooting.

The Search for the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the third episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. This week's episode is a special program of holiday music, featuring performances by Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Charles Brown, and Fiddlin' John Carson, as well as Christmas music from Trinidad, the Ukraine and Puerto Rico. Also available on iTunes. Subscribe now so you don't miss a single episode!

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Here's Nick Cave's extremely violent and profane version of "Stagger Lee" from his Murder Ballads album.

Here's a more traditional take on the song by a fellow who goes by the name of Woody.

Download and listen to Frank Hutchison - "Stackalee"


  1. Nice summary. I recommend 'Stagolee Shot Billy' by Cecil Brown (Harvard UP, 2003) for the full story.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation! I'll check it out.

  3. THE BLACK EYED PEAS? *newfound respect* Have you heard Wrong 'Em Boyo, by The Rulers?

  4. I have not. I'll check it out!