07. Stackolee
(traditional, arr. Woody Guthrie/Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc., BMI)

Track 7 – Stackolee (MASTER MA 68)
“Stackolee” is another of the ballads that Guthrie apparently learned from George, “the big ol’ colored boy” who shined shoes at Jigg’s barbershop in Pampa. George “had great long fingers...;” he could walk all over the neck of a guitar.” As Guthrie’s closest friend Matt Jennings, a superb fiddle player recalled, “Woody learned quite a bit from this shineboy.” “Stackolee” is black in origin, and largely confined to black singers, the eclectic Guthrie ever the exception to all such generalizations. As Guthrie sings it, the ballad more or less recounts the shooting death of William Lyon at the hands of Lee Shelton, known to the sporting fraternity of St. Louis as “Stack Lee.” Shelton was a pimp, and considered “a bad nigger,” a hot-tempered man quick to take offense and do violence. As the boast has it:

I was raised in the backwoods, where my pa raised a bear.
And I got three sets of jawbone teeth and an extra layer of hair.
When I was three I sat in a barrel of knives.
Then a rattlesnake bit me, crawled off and died.

(Quoted from ROGER D. ABRAHAMS, Deep Down in the Jungle [Hatboro, Penn., 1964], p. 79.
There Abrahams offers a discussion of the role of the “hard man” in black American folklore.)

John R. David in his doctoral dissertation, “Tragedy in Ragtime: Black Folktales from St. Louis” (St. Louis University, 1976), detailed the story based on police reports and court records. To some extent, the ballad is an accurate recounting. “Stack” Lee Shelton and Billy Lyon were drinking together in the infamous Bill Curtis Saloon on Christmas Night, 1895. Old friends, they chatted until the conversation turned to politics, according to witnesses. They grew angry and swatted at each other’s hats. Stack Lee smashed the crown of Lyon’s derby; in turn, Lyon snatched Shelton’s milk white Stetson.

Shelton ordered Lyon to give it back; Lyon refused and drew a knife. Shelton then pulled a .44 Smith & Wesson from a coat pocket, and shot Lyon once in the stomach. Shelton walked up to Lee, snarled, “Nigger, I told you to give me my hat,” picked up the Stetson, then calmly walked out. Taken to a hospital, Lyon died about four hours later. Stack Lee was arrested later than night, convicted of murder, and hung. (Cecil Brown’s Stagolee Shot Billy [Cambridge, 2003] recounts the history of the ballad and its significance within the black community.)

Laws in his Native American Balladry, assigns the catalog number of I 15 to the ballad. As well known as the narrative was in the black community, it was not often commercially recorded, probably because artists and repertoire men like Ralph Peer believed that black musicians did not sell as well as white.