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Stagolee Shot Billy Hardcover – 16 May 2003

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...entertaining book... Splendid! Best of its kind. -- MOJO, 1 December 2003

Brown gives us an unusally rich analysis of the legend's growth. -- Times Literary Supplement 29 August 2003

[a] scholarly, readable and often dazzling book... -- Observer 1 June 2003

About the Author

CECIL BROWN is the author of The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger and Days Without Weather. He is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 11 reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Baad Dude Wins Again 20 Jun. 2003
By E. N. Anderson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Anyone with even a slight acquaintance with the blues knows that Stagolee killed Billy Lyons over a brand-new Stetson hat. Stagolee thus became the prototypic baaad dude, the player who would coolly kill a man over fancy headgear. Until now, however, no one knew the real story, and most of us blues fans wondered if either of the gentlemen existed. In truth, "Stack" Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons in a barroom in the red-light district of St. Louis on Christmas Day, 1895. The ballad, now known in hundreds of versions, must have emerged soon afterward.
Cecil Brown has researched the full story--he even provides pictures of the death certificates. He situates the event in its full and rowdy context: the roaring, wide-open world of Mississippi River towns in the late 19th century, when liquor, prostitution, gambling, and violence were the order of the day. He goes on to trace the song through its long and chequered history; central to the blues, it has been enthusiastically adopted by hillbilly and folk singers, rockers, and many more.
Good studies of folklore have been rare lately. The glorious days of the 1960s folk revival are long over. It is thus doubly rewarding to see a really fine study of folk tradition. This book focuses on the literature side; it does not deal with the music (someone should write a companion volume). Brown does an excellent job of interpretation, bringing in just enough theory, not too much. His generalizations are useful and interesting. (I don't agree with "Publisher's Weekly"'s sour comments at the end of their note.) The world needs more books like this. I not only got stuck in it and read it in one sitting--I then sought out my worn old record of Long Cleve Reed and Papa Harvey Hull's superb performance from the 1920's, and played it three times over.
Right on, Cecil Brown.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Coulda been a contender 15 Jan. 2005
By Charles W. Anderson - Published on
Format: Paperback
I loved this book, but I share Mark Forrester's distress about the absolutely abysmal editing. The reference to Leon Gross as "Archibald Cox" is just laughable. There's also a name misspelled in the acknowledgements; something I've never run across before. This in a book published by Harvard University Press, for God's sake.

I nevertheless recommend the book with only the one caveat, albeit a rather large one -- don't quote anything you find here as fact without checking it out yourself. It could be something the fact checkers missed...
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Outlaw ISO Editor 1 Jan. 2005
By Mark Forrester - Published on
Format: Paperback
I have to conclude that other reviewers have actually been reviewing their own ideas of what this book might have been. I wish I could give it such a favorable write-up myself. But despite the interesting information Brown provides about the historical background and recording history of this classic American song, the book itself is disappointingly repetitious, contradictory, sloppily edited and organized, and poorly written. At one point, Brown calls Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" (1982) the "first rap" record [page 92]; elsewhere, he speaks of rap's rising popularity "during the 1970s and 1980s" [222]. In one discussion, he attributes the same poem to both Margaret Walker [197] and Gwendolyn Brooks [199]. And in one paragraph, he claims both that "Madame Babe allowed May [Irwin] to adapt" a particular song and - two sentences later - that "May Irwin may have stolen" that song from Madame Babe [107]. Oh, and he extends New Orleans r&b pianist Archibald's stage name to "Archibald Cox," perhaps as a nod to the Watergate prosecutor [172]. Obviously, writing history based so extensively on oral tradition is going to be difficult, but virtually every other sentence in this book is qualified with a "maybe," "perhaps," or "possibly." Those qualifications are representative of Brown's approach to history, in which he bends the facts as best he can to fit his preconceived notions. Brown's study is filled with generalizations and over-simplifications, and his use of theory is heavy-handed and unconvincing. I'm glad that I read this book - I learned a lot about a subject that interests me, and I found many of Brown's speculations provocative - but, unless Brown is assigned a firm-handed editor for the next edition, I can only recommend it with an armful of caveats.
The legend...finally researched 28 Sept. 2013
By Bill Turner - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The story of Stagolee (aka Stack O'Lee; Stagger Lee) has been told many times in song by artists as diverse as Doc Watson, Fats Domino, Lloyd Price and Bill Haley; and seemed to resurface anew in the early 70s as Jim Croce's "Leroy Brown". Author Cecil Brown has written a wonderfully researched story about this mercurial folk-villian, delving into the official archival news records of the time to track down the actual confrontation between a Lee Shelton and Billy Lyons, resulting in the shooting death that gave birth to the legend and the song, similar perhaps to the manner of events that gave birth to the equallly legendary "Wreck Of The Old 97".
This book is a very intriguing story, telling the story of both characters, the conditions of the town they lived in for this particular period in history--the late 1800s, and not that long after the Civil War had ended.
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Who Was Stagolee? 31 July 2003
By Richard R - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you listen to American blues, rock, or folk music, you've heard about Stagolee. The Grateful Dead, the Clash, John Hurt, and dozens of others told a story about the night Stagolee shot Billy in a bar fight. The words may have varied, and the story may have seemed archetypical, but there was something going on here. Cecil Brown has traced the story to its origins: a bar in St. Louis's red light district in 1895, when Lee Shelton gunned down Billy Lyons because Lyons had touched his hat. Brown has done the research and provides interesting insights into urban culture and race relations in a time and place not far removed from slavery. He reviews different variations of the song, looks into the lives of the real-life protagonists, and discusses why the story made such a good source for songs for the next hundred years.
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