Kenneth Hite (princeofcairo) wrote,
Kenneth Hite

Wrong 'Em, Boyo!

On an impulse, I bought Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix' graphic novel Stagger Lee (available from Image) and this, my friends, is How To Do It. It purports to tell the story of Lee "Stag Lee" Shelton, who killed Billy Lyons on Christmas Eve of 1895 in a fight over a Stetson hat, and who became the subject of the folk song "Stagolee" aka "Stackolee" aka "Stagger Lee" aka "Wrong 'Em Boyo" aka etc. Our set may be most familiar with the Nick Cave version, which tells an almost entirely different story, as it happens.

It's a great evocation of Gilded Age St. Louis criminality, race, and violence. The art does its own share of the work, drawing blacks and whites in the same basic brown line-work, forcing the reader to occasionally closely examine the page to see who's which color -- and to then recoil at his own racializing impulse. It's a brilliant choice, and it foregrounds the issue in a way that simply wouldn't be possible in another medium. Though it wouldn't be a proper American folk item if it didn't add its own layer of racial confusion to the mix -- McCulloch winds up making Lee's lawyer black, when he was actually white. Ooops. To his credit, he admits it, and the story is still a truthful one, just no longer a (purely) historical one.

McCulloch interweaves the story with a history of the "Stagolee" folk song -- although calling a song that was originally composed most likely in ragtime piano bars a "folk song" is no doubt, to a certain breed of pedant, like calling Paul Bunyan a "folk hero." There was a "genuine" folk component to both "Stagolee" and Paul, but the commercial versions piled on so rapidly that by conventional standards they both stopped being "folklore" and became "product" within a few decades at most. (Folklorists sneer and call such things "fakelore." Why it's worse for the Red River Lumber Company to lie about Paul Bunyan than for some drunken Irish lumberjack in Bemidji to do it, I don't quite get.) Of course, that's been the case with every American folk tale, pretty much ever -- by historical standards (which could use a good stiff dose of Heisenberg, actually) I don't think there's a "pure" folk version of anything in America.

Nor should there be -- I love the market. I love literacy, and civilization, and making a buck, and ownership, and intellectual property. Commercialism is how us American folk do things. I'm not one of those aesthetes who demands that "the folk" be kept in anonymity, isolation, and squalor to suit my William Morris notion of kultur. I'm glad that American folk have recording studios and earnest white musicologists and newspaper columns and the Red River Lumber Company and British rock stars and advertising circulars and Jerry Bruckheimer and Image Comics and everything else that propagates the words or music of the common man to anyone with $17.99 and an interest. If you've got both, pick it up.
Tags: america, comics, music

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