Stackolee (Furry Lewis)

As I’ve explained in an earlier post, I first heard “Stagolee” from Woody Guthrie, then from Mississippi John Hurt, then Dave Van Ronk… and eventually from Dave’s source, Furry Lewis. This is the Lewis version, which turns out to be a reworking of a ballad from the same period about a different killing in St. Louis’s Black sporting world, by a man named Ollie or Olive Jackson.

Eric McHenry, who has published a terrific article on the historical “Stack Lee” Shelton and is in the process of writing a definitive book exploring the life, the legend, and the historical milieu, made this connection for me — at which point I realized I had heard the ballad of Ollie Jackson and should have made it myself… but such are the vagaries of research and memory. (McHenry has also written a good piece on the ballad of Louis Collins, yet another murder story from the 1890s, which I learned from Mississippi John Hurt in a version I’ve played and discussed in another post.)

The Ollie Jackson ballad was recorded by Alan Lomax and Lewis Jones from a singer named Will Starks in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1942, fourteen years after Furry Lewis recorded “Stackolee,” but a version of the song was published in 1924 in the column Robert Winslow Gordon edited for Adventure magazine — the original basis of the collection Gordon expanded as the first curator of the Archive of American Folk-Song at the Library of Congress. Along with the tag line, “When you lose your money, learn to lose,” Lewis took other details from the Jackson ballad: unlike Lee Shelton, who killed Billy Lyons over politics and a hat, Jackson killed a man over a card game, and the Starks ballad also includes the line about the sister falling on her knees and begging the killer to refrain.

That said, Lewis’s version is one of the masterpieces of early rural guitar, interspersing the verses with instrumental breaks using a shorter, sharper structure and dramatic bass runs. It was the piece that inspired Dave Van Ronk to take up fingerpicking — he heard it on the first anthology ever issued of folk recordings from commercial 78s, Listen to Our Story, compiled by Alan Lomax and originally released as a 78 album in 1947, then as a ten-inch LP in 1950 (thus predating the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music).

Dave originally thought the recording had two guitarists, but then saw Tom Paley playing it (or something similar) in Washington Square Park, badgered Paley to show him how it was done, went home and holed up with the Lewis recording, and eventually worked it out. It is was one of the first pieces he taught me when I started taking lessons with him, and he continued to play it throughout his career — though, as usual, he put together his own lyric, compiled from multiple sources.

For most of my life I’ve played the John Hurt guitar arrangement with a mix of verses from him, Woody Guthrie, and Van Ronk, but while I was researching my book on the lyrics and censorship of early blues and jazz, Jelly Roll Blues — which includes a section on the Stack Lee ballad, along with other murder ballads from the Black sporting world — Eric McHenry alerted me to the Ollie Jackson connection and I went back to the Lewis recording and realized I remembered not only his guitar part but all his verses… which don’t overlap any of Hurt’s, and are terrific. Then I realized that the instrumental breaks sounded a lot like Hurt’s version of “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” so I tagged a bit of that on at the end.

(I also changed one detail from Lewis’s version — he began the song, “I remember one September, one one Friday night…” but since I’ve been researching the historical Stack Lee, I switched in the actual date of Christmas.)