Showing posts with label Stagger Lee. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stagger Lee. Show all posts

Monday, December 19, 2011

"Stack O' Lee Blues" - the first sheet music (and more)

I have recently had some very interesting email exchanges with Max Morath, who I urge you to look into. I encountered him while ordering some sheet music that Mills Publishing produced back in 1924.

Irving Mills was, of course, Joe Primrose, pseudonymous and imaginary composer of "St. James Infirmary." Irving, along with his brother Jack, was also the proprietor of Mills Music, which early established itself as a purchaser and publisher of "blues" music. As I wrote in the book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, "Once it became clear to Irving and Jack Mills that there was money to be made from song copyrights, they were buying songs from black writers and reaping the profits from this newly popular musical form. . . . Musicians hoping to sell songs tramped the byways of Tin Pan Alley. They knew that if no one else would buy their songs, there was a good chance Irving Mills would."

As we know, Irving made a bundle off "St. James Infirmary" even though nobody in particular wrote it.

So I was intrigued when I saw this sheet music. This was the first time "Stack O' Lee" (or Stagger Lee, Stagolee, etc.) had been published, and I wondered if the Mills brothers were, back in 1924, attempting the same obfuscation they later performed with "St. James Infirmary." I mean, here was this old blues song, one that had arisen from the streets with no discernible original composer, being offered for sale as written by Ray Lopez and Lew Colwell. In fact, in a kind of synchronistic fashion, I had also been reading the recent book by Cecil Brown titled Stagolee Shot Billy (Harvard University Press, 2003) - an account of the history of the Stagolee song. Colwell wrote that, "In 1924 songwriters Ray Lopez and Lew Colwell published a sheet-music version called 'Stack O' Lee Blues.' This fact alone attests to the popularity of the song." (p 135).

I was surprised to find that this original publication of the "Stack O' Lee" song had almost nothing to do with its title. It is a silly dance tune which only mentions its supposed protagonist in the chorus: "Stack O' Lee Blues I don't know what it means. Come on honey let's be stepping, 'cause my feet won't keep still, I've just got to dance until I've had my fill. Stack O' Lee Blues. Play it over for me, I go crazy when I hear it, anywhere I may be, I long to hear them play that Stack O' Lee."

Here are some other lyrics: "Eeny, meeny, miney mo, they'll play some more, now let us catch a nigger by the toe, one more encore. We've got to left foot, right foot, hop and skip, Oh Lordy! hear that tune, ain't that a pipp . . ."

Oh dear me.

So, while this sheet music for Stack O' Lee wasn't an out-and-out ripoff, at least one of the authors had a history of entanglement in copyright issues. As recounted by one of the best music sites on the Web,, Ray Lopez had tried to copyright what is generally recognized as the first jazz record, "Livery Stable Blues," later known as "Barnyard Blues." The Original Dixieland Jass Band had neglected to copyright their smash hit, and Lopez scrambled to profit from it - although testimony showed that the Dixieland Jass Band had based their song on one of Lopez's earlier compositions.

Songwriting was like gold and prospectors everywhere were hoping to profit from it.

Here is the score for "Stack O' Lee Blues" as published in 1924. The pages should enlarge if you click on them.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A bit of a departure - Josh Ritter, Stagger Lee, Delia, etc.

This is a bit of a departure - an article that has no real connection to St. James Infirmary. Unless, that is, you see murder ballads like "Stagger Lee" (aka "Stackalee," etc.) and "Delia" as connected to SJI via their hallowed positions in the pantheon of American roots music.

Josh Ritter has just released a CD, So Runs the World Away. I have to admit that I am a big fan of Ritter, and was delighted, excited to hear a piece on that album titled "Folk Bloodbath." He's done, I think, something remarkable here. As Ritter acknowledges in the liner notes, he started with a tune Mississippi John Hurt recorded in 1928, "Louis Collins." That's the basic melody, and the refrain. Ritter incorporates references to "Delia," "Stagger Lee," and even "Barbara Allen" in building a contemporary and charming song, pulling references from those songs lyrics.

Comparing the original tunes, it sounds like Mississippi John Hurt, in the grand folk tradition, might have incorporated bits of "Delia" when he wrote "Louis Collins." Hurt's reference to funereal red dresses is transmuted into red suits and ox-blood Stetsons in the Ritter song.

There are some interesting plot changes; the fellow who shot Delia enters Ritter's song this way:

The judge was a mean one, his name was 'Hanging Billy Lyons,' He said, "You always been a bad man, Stag, I'm gonna hang you this time." And the angels laid him away.

By the end of the song, Louis Collins, Delia, and Stagger Lee are all dead, as they were (albeit separately) in their earlier incarnations. The closing lines are a treat; I won't reveal them here.

This kind of creative referencing is of the sort that is difficult with copyright-protected songs. Back when "St. James Infirmary" was owned and protected by Irving Mills, nothing remotely approaching this could have been done with it. In fact, SJI might just be coming into its own in this century. You might want to check out NO Notes for some, uhm, notes about more modern versions.
Inquiries into the early years of SJI