Read this graphic novel recently: Stagger Lee, by Derek McCulloch (script) and Shepherd Hendrix (art). In the fine print in the back McCulloch specifies that Greil Marcus's book Mystery Train first acquainted him with the Stagger Lee story. Me too. And I've been fascinated ever since.
Obviously not as fascinated as McCulloch - I haven't assembled two discs' worth of covers of "Stagger Lee" - but fascinated enough to be thrilled when I found this comic.
Simply put, Stagger Lee killed Billy Lyons in St. Louis on Christmas Eve, 1895. The murder became one of the most celebrated in American song, passing through hundreds of cover versions - hundreds of permutations. It's myth as much as history - and why? It's "all about that John B. Stetson hat." If you can understand that, you'll understand a lot.
McCulloch and Hendrix understand that. It's an amazing comic. It's equal parts historical novel, folkloric investigation, musicology, literary analysis, racial meditation, and artistic evocation of a time and a place. You get a thorough explanation of what we know about the event, what distinguishes the major musical rehearsals of the story, what life was like for African Americans in St. Louis in the 1890s, and What It All Means. And you get it in a story told with intriguing characters, beautiful art, and a wonderful economy of expression. There's a hell of a lot packed into 230 pages, just like there's a hell of a lot packed into the three minutes or so most versions of the song occupy.
St. Louis, in the 1890s. Not only did the Stagger Lee murder take place there, but so did the number 2 and 3 famous American murder-ballad murders: Frankie killing Albert (or Johnny), and Duncan killing Brady. And all this is happening while Scott Joplin is pioneering ragtime just a few blocks away. I used to live in St. Louis, and I used to walk around wondering why this place wasn't a Mecca for anybody interested in American history, African-American culture, popular music... Well, Joplin's house has been restored. That's pretty cool. But when I went there I felt like I was the first visitor it had had in years...
But I ramble.
Here are a few versions of the song, for good measure.
Mississippi John Hurt's.
The Grateful Dead's.