September 5, 2008
posted by Jimmy Higgins
[From time to time Fire on the Mountain features, on Fridays, Take Five--a list of five cool things in some semi-random category. It's not supposed to be the only five, best five, top five or anything, just five items worthy of attention. The idea is you can chip in your own suggestions for the list in the comments sections below.]
This edition of Take 5 is for Hank Williams.
This song, this legend, looms large in African American culture and literature, Hank's stomping ground. I've slipped him a bunch of recorded versions of "Stack-O-Lee" (or "Stack O'Lee" or "Stackerlee" or "Staggerlee" or "Stagger Lee" or "Stagolee"--ya pays yer money and ya takes your pick) over the last few years, and there are some mighty cool ones out there. There's Julius Lester's long version from the Civil Rights days, and the Michael Hill Blues Mob take, Black Rock Coalition-stylee. There's David Bromberg's comic "Mrs. Delion's Lament" and Robert Hunter's feminist revenge tale "Delia DeLyon And Staggerlee." Some are disquieting--the casual lynching imagery in the 45 rpm single that Tennessee Ernie Ford and Joe "Fingers" Carr cut in the '50s is scarier than the casual sadism in many versions, though Ike & Tina Turner somehow manage to make Stack-O-Lee the victim of it in theirs.
There's an extensive literature on the Stack-O-Lee question, including a whole scholarly book which I've not had a chance to read. I recommend the Sly Stone section of Greil Marcus's Mystery Train for a nice taste, and I should direct attention to Tom Morgan's extensive listing of recorded versions here.
Meanwhile here are some videos, following my usual standard--live footage if at all possible (5 for 5) and short (3 are pretty tight). As a result, what I consider the four standard variants all appear as covers. Pretty fucking sweet covers, though.
What the Wicked Mr. Pickett gives us here is based on the one Lloyd Price took to number one on the rock and roll charts for four weeks straight in early 1959. This is the rock and roll standard and most of the variants you're likely to hear are, like this, based on Price's. Few can challenge the energy of the original. Pickett does.
This is a poem, read by a New Orleans-based elder who cut his cultural teeth with the Broadside poets in the '60s. This is in a sense a cover version, too. The second "standard" version of Stack-O-Lee and possibly the oldest isn't even a song. It's a toast, a pre-poetry-slam form of epic Black spoken word. Rudy Ray Moore--Dolomite, for those who remember Blaxpoitation flicks--recorded a fairly straightforward version of the traditional toast, but this retains that spirit and adds additional depth.
Some consider the canonical version to be the one cut by Mississippi John Hurt in 1928. I couldn't find a video of him doing it during his early 1960s "rediscovery" though they must exist. There are a bunch of versions on YouTube highlighting his finger-picking style on the guitar, but I picked this bunch of Swedes to showcase that tradition because they are having fun and displaying respect, not reverence.
Man, I love this. It's a contemporary cover of Lloyd Price's gold standard by the Collins Kids, a wonderful rockabilly brother/sister act from the '50s. Again, energy that can stand up to Lloyd Price with ease.
Dave Van Ronk
And finally to take us out, the fourth and final standard version in my personal typology, the one Memphis bluesman and songster Furry Lewis recorded as "Billy Lyons And Stack O'Lee" a year before the John Hurt version. His emphasizes the gambling aspect, with its memorable refrain, "If you lose your money, learn to lose." I apologize for the length of this Dave Van Ronk video; the song itself starts about 2:30 in, and you can just push the little slider there and start to listen, but he does have a few interesting things to say in his opening tribute to Furry Lewis. And some of us miss him.