Monday, July 20, 2009

Black ballads (4) : Bad Men, from Stack'O Lee to John Hardy

Champion Jack Dupree - Stack O'Lee (buy) (1958)

The bad man is another recurrent hero of black ballads, and an object of fascination and fear (see the Railroad Bill discussion) . The bad man survived the blues era and can be found in rap and of course, reggae. Last week I saw "The Harder They Come" (with the famous and excellent soundtrack), a great "bad man" story.

The archetypal bad man is, of course, Stagger Lee (or Stack'O Lee), a St Louis (or, some say Memphis) pimp who shot Billy Lyons for a Stetson hat. A lot has been said and written about him, including a famous essay by Greil Marcus who linked him to Sly Stone.
Most scholars see a shooting in Saint Louis as the original murder that gave birth to the Stagger Lee legend.

Please check out this great post about Stack'O Lee at Gadaya's Old Weird America with the original story, many useful links and 40 versions by musicians of various genres and times.

In short, like Gadaya says, Stack is the dark side of John Henry, and his song, like the one about the steel diver, was recorded by hundreds of artists (400 according to the site). I love the Mississippi John Hurt rendition, one of the very first, but as we've already heard his John Henry, I'm posting the Champion Jack Dupree cover, one of a long line of New Orleans Stagger Lees (by Archibald, Lloyd Price, Fess Longhair, etc..).

Leadbelly - Duncan and Brady (buy) (1947)

Other bad men and murderers include Duncan, who shot sheriff Bill Brady in a barroom or a grocery store (some grocery stores sold whiskey and even other things). This song is very similar to Stagger Lee and seems to originate from St Louis too, as well as "Ella Speed" or "Frankie" of which we will talk later.
It was first recorded by hillbilly singer Wilmer Watts but the most famous version is by Leadbelly. Check out this discussion at Mudcat Cafe's forum and you'll learn a lot about the song's origins.
Let's not forget that Leadbelly himself carried the image of the bad man, sentenced 3 times for murder and assault.

Willie Walker - Dupree Blues (buy) (1930)
Frank Dupree grew up in Abbeville, South Carolina. He came on the scene in December 1921 in Atlanta, Georgia, where he had a gal Betty. In trying to appropriate a diamond for her in a jewelry store he shot a policeman down. Fleeing to Memphis and later to Chicago, where he was cornered, he killed a policeman and wounded several more. He was caught while getting his mail and sent to Atlanta for trial. He was executed for murder on September 1, 1922." (Roberts, Leonard Ward. In the Pine: Selected Kentucky Folksongs. Pikeville College Press, 1978.)
Another bad man story, where the hero kills for love (or, should we say, where the hero kills to satisfy his woman's greed) and the occasion to post a song by the great Willie Walker, a blind and forgotten musician from South Carolina (just like Dupree)who recorded 4 fantastic Piedmont blues in 1930 for Columbia with Sam Brooks, his regular accompanist.

Last but not least, John Hardy. In my earlier John Henry post, Lynchie from Aberdeen stressed the strong link between these two Johns. This is something I had never thought of, but this page confirms that for some people, J. Hardy and John Henry were one and the same. Both stories come from West Virginia.
Don't forget to check out the John Hardy post at Old Weird America, replete with information and recordings.
The historical John Hardy was probably a black coal miner who killed another worker over a crap game in West Viriginia. Before being hanged, he wrote a repentance song, which is believed to be the origin of the folk piece. Although John Hardy was black, the majority of singers who recorded the song were white, with the notable exception of Leadbelly (and more recently, Alvin Youngblood Hart). But the rendition which in my opinion towers over all the others, is by the Carter Family, with the great guitar work of Maybelle and Sara's voice.

The Carter Family - John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man (buy) (1928)


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