Sunday, May 21, 2006

All for a brand-new Stetson hat

A Stagger Lee Experiment

Amy has promised the fabulous from me, but I'm afraid all I can deliver in this case is an experiment.

Stagger Lee - Lloyd Price

Some songs you like, some songs must be respected whether they move you or not, and some actually conjure the old lit class saw, "all art is the product of its times, the artists that created it and its mode of production," out of thin air. It's an example of the latter I'd like to discuss and when I say discuss Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee," I mean it. I'm no expert on Price, the 50s, nor the rich history of the song's focal point, but I know enough to know that there's a multitude there that you all can contribute to.

There's plenty of context, that's for sure. In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus has an extensive footnote on Mr. Lee (what to call him?) and cites the Price version as excellent, especially the introduction, but doesn't elaborate (I should admit that I am running on memory rather than reference here; Mystery Train is one of those books you loan out and never get back). Down in the Flood's Jason Chervokas leads with Price in his John Henry/Stagger Lee podcast, but doesn't circle back and discuss it specifically. In fact, you can link endlessly on the broad subject, but, as a friend (and soon to be comment contributor I hope) said, there's an essay in this song itself.

Here's my initial observation: Dick Clark wouldn't take the song on American Bandstand because it wasn't appropriate (is there any documentation on what Dick actually said?) and got Price to change the lyrics. Certainly you don't get a whole lot more graphic than "the bullet went through Billy and broke the bartender's glass" but it's not just violent. Sure, a gun shattered mirror is a powerful closing image, but there's also the sense of the bartender, after hours, sweeping up the remnants and having to shell out for a replacement; it's his glass and, unlike in your standard myth, the actions of the heroes seem to have consequences. Usually I'd think I was pushing too hard to get here, but there's the way Price renders "bar-tender's" with a half-beat where I've inserted a dash. I don't think there's a rhythmic reason to do so (am I right?) and, in a song where every lyric is doing at least double work, the strange emphasis is worthy of interpretation.

Will the next interpreter please step forth? I'm interested in pretty much everything about this tune: how it fits in with Price's other work, the ways in which it was typical and atypical for '59, and for whether or not I'm crazy for thinking this is about the best you can get in 140 seconds of narrative songwriting.

By the way, Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" is available in a number of places, but try the excellent Loud, Fast and Out of Control box.


Anonymous Garth Bond said...

Thanks for spurring me to dig my copy of "Stagger Lee" out of storage and give it another listen. I think what I find most fascinating about the song is the tension between the elements of the song that are calculated to sell it to a white audience and those that inspired the Black Panthers to use it as a recruiting tool.

That Price wanted the song to cross over is hard to doubt. He first started working with the material while in the Army in Korea, and he claims that he even had other soldiers acting out the story while he sang (for this and other biographical information, I'm indebted to Todd Everett's wonderful liner notes to the musically disappointing Lloyd Price Greatest Hits: The Original ABC-Paramount Recordings-- though it does contain both the original and Bandstand versions of "Stagger Lee"). Serving in what was the first generation of the integrated Army, one has to suspect that the soldiers weren't acting out the racial narrative of the original material, and Price's version of the song never mentions the race of either Stagger Lee or his victim Billy. Price also found the whitest sounding backing vocalists he could, a group that usually worked behind Perry Como. Then there is the strange opening verse in which Price presents himself as an innocent dog walker who simply notices two men gambling in the dark, a verse which can only exist to reassure nervous listeners that the black Price has no relationship with the raceless murderer about whom he sings. And despite Price's own view that the selling point of his song was the addition of a clear narrative to the folk material, he willingly rewrote his story into a nonsensical (if charmingly absurdist) lyric in order to get it played on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.

But what Price was selling to a white audience is another matter altogether. Failing to mention Stagger Lee's race avoids but does not erase the details of the myth. The swaggering saxophone and Price's own impassioned vocal surely obliterate the theoretical distancing of the opening verse. And the lily whiteness of the backing vocalists must be weighed against their role as a cheering section for the cross-racial murder (imagine Native Son with the Andrews Sisters chanting "Go, Bigger, Go!" in the background). The thing that really sells the song, though, is Stagger Lee's style. Having already reduced Billy to begging for a whole verse, Stagger doesn't merely shoot him, he shoots that poor boy sooo bad. How bad, you ask? Bad enough to send the bullet straight through Billy and break the bartender's glass. I agree with Jon about the consequences of Stagger Lee's actions, but the style of his violence is what rightly transforms him into a prefiguration of the Black Power movement.

The tension of the song runs throughout Price's career, though nowhere else did it come together in a single work. Although Price had begun his career with the utterly uncompromising and brilliant "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" (a hit before he was drafted), he followed "Stagger Lee" with a series of utterly forgettable pop songs best captured in the deplorable if successful "Personality" (those of us who grew up in the 70s rather than the 50s are likely to best remember this tune from the insufferable phone commercials: "Cause you've got, PERSONALITY, walk with PERSONALITY, talk with PERSONALITY"). But Price had gotten decent legal representation early on and actually owned his own hits, turning the profits toward African-American investments like the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle, which Price promoted alongside Don King. If Price was willing to sell out his music, he understood the importance of financial independence in sticking it to the Man. And for at least one song, Price's unabashed pursuit of filthy lucre and his social conscience melded to produce something transcendent (not to mention helping to fund one of the greatest fights ever).

11:16 PM  
Anonymous Michael Williams said...

I have very little to add other than thanks to Jon for introducing me to the song and encouraging others to comment, and to Garth for his fascinating response.

1:43 AM  
Anonymous JayMorris said...

Stagger Lee is in the air this year. There's a graphic novel on the subject just out or soon to be out (not sure) from Image Comics. Greil Marcus speaks highly of it in the current Interview Magazine. There's a review of it here:

1:16 AM  

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