Previously in this series…
- Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
- Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
- Other people’s songs: They killed him
- Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
- Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood
Aaron: This track is known by various names: Stagger Lee, Stagolee and other variants. Bob’s version, Stack a Lee, appeared on Worlds gone Wrong.
Tony: Now you are really pushing my musical knowledge beyond the boundaries… I had to look this one up, although I did know it has been around for a long old time. I just didn’t know where it had been.
The journey took me to Frank Hutchison who is pictured on the left, (and I’ll come back to him in a moment) to my favourite actor and comedian. But let’s try and do the whole journey…
And then in 1925 Ma Rainey recorded it. Ma Rainey you will of course know because “ma rainey and beethoven once unwrapped a bedroll” on Tombstone Blues. Although quite what that means I have no idea.
So the song evolved and meandered and then Bob went back to the early version
It may be that my English upbringing leaves me not fully attuned to the lyrics and Bob’s intonation in this song, so in case that affliction affects you also, here are the lyrics…
Hawlin Alley on a dark and drizzly night, Billy Lyons and Stack-A-Lee had one terrible fight. All about that John B. Stetson hat. Stack-A-Lee walked to the bar-room, and he called for a glass of beer, Turned around to Billy Lyons, said, "What are you doin' here?" "Waitin' for a train, please bring my woman home. "Stack-A-Lee, oh Stack-A-Lee. please don't take my life. Got three little children and a-weepin', lovin' wife. You're a bad man, bad man, Stack-A-Lee." "God bless your children and I'll take care of your wife. You stole my John B., now I'm bound to take your life." All about that John B. Stetson hat. Stack-A-Lee turned to Billy Lyons and he shot him right through the head, Only taking one shot to kill Billy Lyons dead. All about that John B. Stetson hat. Sent for the doctor, well the doctor he did come, Just pointed out Stack-A-Lee, said, "Now what have you done?" You're a bad man, bad man, Stack-A-Lee." Six big horses and a rubber-tired hack, Taking him to the cemetery, buy they failed to bring him back. All about that John B. Stetson hat. Hawlin Alley, thought I heard the bulldogs bark. It must have been old Stack-A-Lee stumbling in the dark. He's a bad man, gonna land him right back in jail. High police walked on to Stack-A-Lee, he was lying fast asleep. High police walked on to Stack-A-Lee, and he jumped forty feet. He's a bad man, gonna land him right back in jail. Well they got old Stack-A-Lee and they laid him right back in jail. Couldn't get a man around to go Stack-A Lee's bail All about that John B. Stetson hat. Stack-A-Lee turned to the jailer, he said, "Jailer, I can't sleep. 'Round my bedside Billy Lyons began to creep." All about that John B. Stetson hat.
So how on earth did we get from the music and lyrics of the early versions to Bob’s version? Did he re-write it himself, or is he re-interpreting an earlier interpretation?
This is where Frank Hutchison comes in…
Frank Hutchison was an early 20th century Piedmont blues singer/songwriter who worked with Okeh Records (who called him “The Pride of West Virginia.”) Most reports name him as the first non-African American musician to perform and record the country blues. Which would explain very much why Bob was drawn to hims music.
Aaron: Many artists have tackled the song using variants of the lyrics and melody. Here are a couple I liked.
Tony: This is one of the reasons why I love working through the history of these old songs – Stagger Lee seems to have transformed itself into a million different forms. I quite enjoyed that. But then….
Tony: Now Hugh Laurie has for many years been at or near the very top of my list of people who I would love to meet, and who, if I did meet, I would undoubtedly end up with my mouth hanging open and being utterly unable to say a word and then probably find I had been dribbling.
If you don’t know the work of Hugh Laurie well, all I can do is say it ranges from music as above, to his primary source of fame and undoubtedly income, acting. From “House” to “Jeeves and Wooster”, from “Fry and Laurie” to my absolute favourite, “The Night Manager”.
Indeed it has always seemed rather unfair that one man should have such a phenomenal range of talent – but I guess when they were doshing it out the bucket slipped and Hugh Laurie got 150 people’s worth, leaving us poor mortals scrabbling around for the odd bits that dripped down after he had been submerged in the stuff.
He has won three Golden Globe Awards and two Screen Actors Guild Awards was appointed OBE in the 2007 New Year Honours and CBE in the 2018 New Year Honours, for services to drama.
Thank you Aaron for giving me a chance to say something about this amazing man. And to Hugh Laurie, thank you for that really is a most fantastic version of Stagger Lee that you recorded. I’m so glad it was filmed. I live in awe of your multiple talents.