At the moment I’m reading a brilliant book I got for Christmas called I Shot A Man In Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Diseaseand General Misadventure As Related in Popular Song by Graeme Johnson. It’s a great title. It’s a book (well duh!) that provides great reading opened at any page at random but is best enjoyed all the way through.
It’s prompting a lot of delving through the record collection. For starters I turned up Stack O’Lee Blues, also known as Stagger Lee. I’ve chosen the Mississippi John Hurt version, although I could have gone for one of countless other options including Woody Guthrie’s Stackolee, Nick Cave and Bad Seeds’ Stagger Lee from the Murder Ballads album and Stackalee by Frank Hutchinson from Harry Smith’s wonderful Anthology of American Folk Music boxset on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
The sleevenotes in the Smithsonian boxset gives background to the tale,
“Theft of stetson hat causes deadly dispute, victim identifies self as family man.
The murder mentioned here probably took place in Memphis in about 1900. Stack Lee seems to have been connected by birth or employment with the Lee family of that city who owned a large line of steamers on the Mississippi”
I’ve also just discovered two more versions in my collection. Wrong Em Boyo by The Clash, a cover of a Ska song on London Calling is based on the tale as is Stack Shot Billy by the Black Keys. I’ve spent a bit of time listening to the various versions of this song that I have.