10. A Song about a Hat

‘Stack O’Lee Blues’ – Mississippi John Hurt


‘Stack O’Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat’

‘There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “Stetson!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”‘

St Louis, Missouri, 27 December 1895: a dispute between between two friends – “Stag” Lee Shelton and William Lyons – ends in murder. The next day, the St Louis Globe-Democrat covered the story:

Lyons and Sheldon [sic] were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor, Sheldon took his hat from the head of the wounded man and coolly walked away.

Shelton’s trial became a cause célèbre in St Louis. The case dragged on for nearly two years and saw crowds massed outside the courthouse to hiss at the fiend who shot a man over a hat. Before the trial was over, The Ballad of Stack-a-Lee was being performed in neighbouring states, and over the next few decades versions of it could be found across the South – Tennessee, Colorado, Kansas, Texas.

It is tempting then to imagine St Louis resident T. S. Eliot – seven years old at the time of the murder – hearing about the case at school, seeing it in his father’s newspaper, or indeed coming across the song as it spread out across the southern states. I don’t mean to say that it’s true, only that it’s less silly than some of the other theories about The Waste Land‘s Stetson put forward with a straight face. Perhaps we’ve reached a point where Waste Land detective work is beyond parody.

In the century since Lyons’s murder, Stack O’Lee, Stag-O-Lee, Stagger Lee – its name in various forms, its lyrics fluid – has been covered by a bewildering array of performers. Lloy Price took it to number one; Nick Cave turned it into gay porn; Beck follows Mississippi John Hurt’s definitive 1928 recording. This – John Hurt’s version – is my favourite by a country mile. As with Frankie – another murder ballad he recorded for Okeh in the late 20s – Hurt’s voice is warm, gentle, almost at odds with the violent material, while the swift, elegant, syncopated guitar picking is joy to hear, but a nightmare to imitate.

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