A lot of thought and experimenting has gone into the Finding Aids project lately, and I’m discovering how easily I can be diverted from the grander overall scheme of developing orderly summaries by things encountered along the way. Every Thing that one picks up has edges that potentially link to other Things, and I’m sometimes sidetracked by shiny somethings. A few days ago I started to explore the vastnesses of my American music holdings, and so I’m wrestling with the sliding panoply of genres that belong within “Music of the Nacirema” (blues, jazz, old timey, bluegrass, folk, etc. etc.). Pretty much every item spins out into another Story, a facet (or several) of the glorious complexity of a musical landscape that spans more than a century.
The epic of Stagolee is one such: a tale of Shakespearean scope and perennial fascination, based on an incident that took place in St. Louis in 1896, centered on a shooting over a John B. Stetson hat. There are hundreds of variants since the story was first published in 1911. Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians released an instrumental version in 1923, soon followed by Lovie Austin’s version with words in 1924, Ma Rainey’s (with Louis Armstrong’s cornet) in 1925, and Frank Hutchison’s in 1927. See the Wikipedia article for more detail, and enjoy the variety in these examples:
Dr. John, 1972
Keb’ Mo’ from the film Honeydripper, 2008
Amy Winehouse, in Brazil 2011
Mikołaj Woubishet Wrocław, 2008
Grateful Dead, NY July 4, 1989
There are many possible readings of the story itself. See Bad-Ass Liberator, Singout!’s sanitized take, and a range of opinions via Mudcat.
Some of the quite different but similarly exemplary tunes that surfaced as I wandered in the Blues world are:
Pratt City, is where I was born Pratt City, is where I was born If you get to there, you can get your water on Get full of high‑powered liquor, it's bound to make him scream Get full of high‑powered liquor, it's bound to make him scream Going back to Pratt City, if it takes nice and mean You walk Sandusky, keep your head hung down You walk Sandusky, keep your head hung down Don't worry hot papa, I'm driftrack bound
There’s a 1929 version on Spotify:Pratt City, is where I was born Pratt City, is where I was born If you get to there, you can get your water on Get full of high‑powered liquor, on eighteenth street Get full of high‑powered liquor, on eighteenth street Going back to Pratt City, get sick nice and neat You walk Sandusky, keep your head hung down You walk Sandusky, keep your head hung down Don't worry hot papa, I'm driftrack bound Pratt City girls should do treat you right Pratt City girls should do treat you right With those Birmingham girls, drink with you day and night
Hogman Maxey’s “Duckin’ and Dodgin'” (1959, recorded by Harry Oster in Angola penitentiary):
Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas’ “Last Kind Words” (1930):
The last kind words I heard my daddy say Lord, the last kind words I heard my daddy say If I die, if I die in the German war I want you to send my body, send it to my mother, lord If I get killed, if I get killed, please don't bury my soul I p'fer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole When you see me comin' look 'cross the rich man's field If I don't bring you flour I'll bring you bolted meal I went to the depot, I looked up at the stars Cried, some train don't come, there'll be some walkin' done My mama told me, just before she died Lord, precious daughter, don't you be so wild The Mississippi river, you know it's deep and wide I can stand right here, see my babe from the other side What you do to me baby it never gets outta me I may not see you after I cross the deep blue sea
…and see The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie (John Jeremiah Sullivan)
Lonnie Johnson’s “To Do This, You Got To Know How”
(see how it’s played by Josh Baum)
Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues”
Went out last night, Had a bad big fight Everything seemed to go on wrong I looked up, to my surprise The gal I was with was gone. Where she went, I don't know I mean to follow everywhere she goes; Folks say I'm crooked. I didn't know where she took it I want the whole world to know. They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me Sure got to prove it on me; Went out last night with a crowd of my friends, They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men. It's true I wear a collar and a tie, Makes the wind blow all the while Don't you say I do it, ain't nobody caught me You sure got to prove it on me. Say I do it, ain't nobody caught me Sure got to prove it on me. I went out last night with a crowd of my friends, It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men. Wear my clothes just like a fan Talk to the gals just like any old man Cause they say I do it, ain't nobody caught me Sure got to prove it on me.
…and see more backstory
Skip James “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” (original 1931, this version 1967)
Hard times is here and everywhere you go Times are harder than ever been before You know that people, they are are driftin' from door to door But you can't find no heaven, I don't care where they go People, if I ever can get up off of this old hard killin' floor Lord, I'll never get down this low no more When you hear me singin' this old lonesome song People, you know these hard times can last us so long You know, you say you had money, you better be sure Lord, these hard times gon' kill you, just drag on slow
Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues” goes around the world: