One Track Mind: Taj Mahal, "Stagger Lee" (2011)

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The lyrics have changed over these many years, but the mythical journey of Stagger Lee — “that bad man, oh, cru-el Stagolee” who shot a card-playing companion over a five-dollar Stetson hat — remains this talismanic tale.

As retold with stunning clarity on a new recording by Taj Mahal, though, the song’s archetypical worship of the anti-hero is brilliantly turned on its ear. There’s little resemblance here, in fact, to the familiar early rock-era update, where a jubilant Lloyd Price eggs on the proceedings, shouting “Go, go! Go Staggerlee!” And of course none at all to subsequent versions that have spanned every important American musical genre.

Mahal, performing alone as part of the new Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton Play the Blues project on Reprise Records, joins a teetering pile that includes some 400 others who have remade “Staggerlee” since the track was first recorded in the early 1920s. (At that point, the story of William “Billy” Lyons’ murder by Stagger Lee Shelton had been legend through the lower Mississippi River for as long as a decade.) Over time, the tune become something of a landmark in modern music, having been reimagined in genres as diverse as ragtime, jazz, blues, country, Broadway, folk and 1950s rock, punk and metal — all before Staggerlee (or a similar kind of badass) became something of a seminal figure in hip hop.

Yet Mahal, in an oaken, brutally honest update of a tune he first did on 1969’s Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home, finds a way to make it all sound dangerous and new once more. Chalk some of that up to the lasting mystery of the tune itself: “Staggerlee” has always been part cultural admission of an underlying fear of the African-American male, part subtle indictment of our fascination with outlaws. Most of all, perhaps, it’s a darkly fascinating narrative. This sharply drawn fable, after all, turn as a bullet goes through Billy and then through a bartender’s glass. At the same time, though, Mahal is to be credited for returning the song to its initial place as a cautionary tale, recalling ’20s-era versions by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt. In Mahal’s hands, this is no celebration of violence.

Now, you’ve got to dig deep into this new live program to find Mahal’s “Staggerlee,” past the audio CD and all the way to the end of the accompanying DVD. When you do, though, Mahal is all alone, and the crowd is seemingly struck dumb by the stark power of this song. He opens with a ruminative guitar interlude, sounding like playing cards flapping on bike spokes, then opens up into a series of crowing growls — recalling how Billy pleaded for his life, telling Staggerlee that he had two children and a wife back home, before ultimately being shot down anyway.

As he enters the heart of the lyric, Mahal’s playing continues along with a thrilling interpretive complexity, mimicking a midnight freight as it slows through town, then charging forward with a gun-barrel flash of ringing insistence. The culprit in this jarring moment of violence is never caught, even as barroom patrons continue walking through Billy’s long-dried blood. “Po-lice officers, how can it be,” Mahal sings, in a gruff indictment, “you done ‘rested everybody, but cru-el Stagolee!”

That voice, so full of ragged glory, is easily the best thing that’s happened to this stately old standard in quite some time.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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