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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Sweet. Another book (without pictures) on Stagolee just came out recently too.

Re: the other thing you emailed me about, I'll reply in detail when I can, but I think it's a great idea. More soon.

Deleted comment

I'm with you on commercialism. My bias is that eras when high art chastely avoids any contact with commercial art are far less productive artistically, and less lively, then eras when the two are promiscuously intermingled. Elizabethan theater, Dutch genre painting, and classic Hollywood film didn't suffer from their involvement with the cash nexus.

Folk Origins


June 16 2006, 06:47:28 UTC 11 years ago

By the way, I'm happy enough for there to be British rock stars myself, but if that reference was to Nick Cave, you're out by most of the planet.

(Checking, it turns out that he was born in a town called Warracknabeal. Which is rather appealing itself.)

Phil Masters
It's a reference to the Clash, ackshelly. And, obliquely, to the Rolling Stones, who did their share of trying to muddy the waters where their blues covers were concerned.
I get my Staggerlee courtesy of Taj Mahal

...and after some reading I have no idea where 'folk,' 'volk,' 'the nation' and 'rakyat' begin or end (except that they begin in the time of legend before memory and they are unending, while at the same time being under constant threat of annihilation, of course).

I'm with you - "authentic folk" is for people who haven't read, or written, enough history. The insistence that it be kept away from making money is a form of would-be Secret Master control by people who aren't actually Secret Masters. The point of such complaining is NOT to keep the authentic/pure, but to create the myth that such an authenticity exists, with Values separate from market value.

Damn, these soapboxes are splintery.


June 20 2006, 13:58:56 UTC 11 years ago

Trying to separate American folk music and culture from commercialism is a mug's game. Most American folk culture is _about_ some kind of industrial activity or commercial product. Think of the 19c "tall tale" heroes: John Henry, Paul Bunyan, etc. They're all defined by their industrial occupation. While the beating heart of 20c American pop culture is the automobile.

The jury's still out on 21c pop culture. Interesting thought: why no songs about computer hackers?

not just American folk: an awful lot of English folk songs (and Irish, and Scottish, for that matter) are about working in the fields or the city or the mines or on the sea - directly or indirectly engaging in capitalist or colonial endeavour, from "going up Camborne hill, coming down" (late 18th c, birth of the railways) to almost anything by Ewan McColl.