Stagolee Shot Billy

Content warning: explicit language, racial slurs (including the n-word) in original sources.

Stack Lee (drawing by Timothy Lane).

Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, dedicated his 1968 book Seize the Time, to his wife and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale. Malik’s third name, as Seale explains it,

derives from the lumpen proletarian politically unaware brothers in the streets. Stagolee fought his brothers and sisters, and he shouldn’t have. The Stagolees of today should take on the messages of Malcolm X as Huey Newton [the co-founder, with Seale, of the Black Panther Party] did, to oppose this racist, capitalist oppression our people and other peoples are subjected to. Malik must not fight his brothers. . . .

When my wife Artie had a baby boy, I said, “The nigger’s name is Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.”

“I don’t want him named that!” Artie said.

I had read all that book history about Stagolee, that black folkloric history, because I was hung up on that stuff at the time . . . Stagolee was a bad nigger off the block and didn’t take shit from nobody. All you had to do was organize him, like Malcolm X, make him politically conscious. . . [Kwame] Nkrumah [the first president of post-colonial Ghana] was a bad motherfucker and Malcolm X was a bad nigger. Huey P. Newton showed me the nigger on the block was [as powerful as] ten motherfuckers when politically educated, and if you got him organized. I said, “Stagolee, put Stagolee on his name,” because Stagolee was an unorganized nigger, to me, like a brother on the block. I related to Huey P. Newton because Huey was fighting niggers on the block. Huey was a nigger that came along and he incorporated Malcolm X, he incorporated Stagolee, he incorporated Nkrumah, all of them.

Seale (left) and Newton.

Who was Stagolee, and why did his legend persist into the days of Black Power?

Also known as Stagger Lee, Stacker Lee, and Stack-o-Lee, among other derivatives, Stagolee was born Lee Shelton in Texas in 1865. He became a legendary pimp in St. Louis, and shot another man, Billy Lyons, in a bar fight in 1895, during which Lyons snatched Shelton’s Stetson hat off his head. As Joe Kloc describes the scenario:

On Christmas Day, 1895, a local pimp named “Stack” Lee Shelton walked into a St. Louis bar wearing pointed shoes, a box-back coat, and his soon-to-be infamous milk-white John B. Stetson hat. Stack joined his friend Billy Lyons for a drink. Their conversation settled on politics, and soon it grew hostile: Lyons was a levee hand and, like his brother-in-law—one of the richest black men in St. Louis at the time—a supporter of the Republican party. Stack had aligned himself with the local black Democrats. The details of their argument aren’t known, but at some point Lyons snatched the Stetson off Stack’s head. Stack demanded it back, and when Lyons refused, shot him dead.

Popular songs about Stagolee, in the ancient folk tradition of murder ballads, began cropping up almost immediately after this event. Shelton went to prison, and by the time he was paroled in 1909, the first written version of the lyrics about his misdeeds had been published. The folk narrative of Stagolee and Billy has been recorded hundreds of times by artists across color lines and genres.

The most famous rendition is by country blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt.

The influential Depression-era white folksinger Woody Guthrie:

Blues guitarist Taj Mahal’s version:

In 1959, it became a rock-and-roll hit for Lloyd Price:

Amy Winehouse performing a cover of Lloyd Price’s cover:

Wilson Pickett’s blues-funk version in 1969:

The Grateful Dead:

Samuel L. Jackson talk-sings it in the movie Black Snake Moan:

British-Australian post-punk singer Nick Cave:

What is the deeper cultural meaning of the conflict between Stagolee and Billy?

What accounts for the appeal of this legend to artists decades after the event, especially artists in commercial genres?

Why do you think artists with only minimal connections to African-American folk traditions would be attracted to this song?

Do you think such artists should record/perform it? What meanings do their recordings convey?

Does the spirit of Stagolee live in on black music of our own time?

What do you think Bobby Seale’s intention was in naming his son after Stagolee?

Bobby Seale and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale, in 1973.

This is a beautifully-drawn graphic-novel treatment of the story. The pages are out of order because they’re meant to be printed and bound, but check it out.

Toasts, Signifyin(g), and the Roots of Rap

Shine surviving the sinking of the Titanic.

Content warning: explicit language and situations.

Although the cradle of rap is generally acknowledged to be community-room parties in the South Bronx, the genre draws from multiple threads and locations, from Jamaica to Louisiana to the hobo poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Oklahoma-born writer George Milburn, who spent time on the road as an itinerant laborer, wrote in the 1930s:

Tramps and hoboes are the last of the ballad makers. Not in the Tennessee Hills, or among the Sea Island Negroes, or in any other such [isolated] community is there a more vigorous balladry than that which has been flourishing for the past fifty years in America’s peripatetic underworld . . . To relieve the tedium of dreary waits in jungle camps [i.e. work camps for migratory laborers] and long spells of incarceration in country jails . . . many extemporaneous epics, as well as the hobo classics, are sung or recited.

Milburn traces “extemporaneous rhyming,” known in today’s parlance as freestyling, to eighteenth-century England, where reciting rhymed verse made up on the spot was a popular form of parlor entertainment.

A form of folk poetry that developed in the black community simultaneously with hobo balladry is toasting. Toasting is a genre of orally-transmitted narrative recited in rhyme and in rhythm. Toasts, according to scholars of folklore, were traditionally performed in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by men for male audiences in typically male settings. As Bruce Jackson, who compiled the 1974 anthology of toasts Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me puts it:

Toasts can be told anywhere — at parties, lounging around bars and street corners, on a troopship crossing the boring ocean — but they seem to be told in county jails more than anywhere else. There is so much time to kill in county jails and so little to do with that time, and so great a portion of the population in county jails is lower-class black (they are the people without money to pay a bondsman for freedom before trial or who must serve jail time because they lack money to pay a fine) . . . As much evidence as there is for viewing toasts as the literature of the street or partying black man, there is evidence to consider it, along with the worksong of the black convict in the South, as his jailhouse testament . . . and it is just those street roles of badman, pimp, hustler, and junkie described in so many of the poems that [have landed] those jailhouse [storytellers] in jail in the first place.

In other words, the subject matter of jailhouse toasts was self-referential: tales of criminal exploits recited by men who had committed similar exploits. The toasters were performing authenticity, or, in other words, keeping it real.

You can read Get Your Ass in the Water online in its entirety here.

As clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow (above) put it, in an eloquent description of signifying:

Deny the Negro the culture of the land? O.K. He’ll brew his own culture — on the street corner. Lock him out from the seats of higher learning? He pays it no nevermind he’ll dream up his own professional double-talk, from the professions that are open to him, the professions of musician, entertainer, maid, butler, tap-dancer. . . .

The hipster stays conscious of the fraud of language. Where many ofays [whites] will hold forth pompously, like they had The Word, the Negro mimics them sarcastically. As a final subtle touch, his language is also a parody, a satire on the conventional ofay’s gift of gab and gibberish.

There are folk heroes who appear over and over in toasts across geographical areas from Louisiana to California to upstate New York: they include Pimping Sam, the murderous gambler Stagolee, the legendary pimp Dolemite, and Shine, the boilerman who survives the sinking of the Titanic and becomes a proto-Black Power hero, outwitting the standard figure of the captain.

It was sad indeed, it was sad in mind
April the four was a hell of a time.
When the news reached a seaport town
that the great Titanic was a-sinking down.
Now up popped Shine, from the decks below
and said “Captain, captain, don’t you know.
there’s forty feet of water on the boiler room floor.”
But the captain said, “Never mind Shine, just do as you’re told,
and go back down in that deep black hold.”
Shine said, “That’s funny, that’s mighty fine,
But I’m gonna save this black ass of mine.
There’s fish in the ocean and crabs in the sea
this is one time when white folks ain’t gonna bullshit me.”
So Shine jumped overboard and start to swim
and all the people on the deck is lookin’ at him.

The actor and comedian Rudy Ray Moore recorded several albums of toasts recited some toasts concerning these characters in front of a live comedy audience in the 1970s:

The great George Clinton recorded a version of “Shine and the Great Titanic” in 1997:

Rudy Ray Moore also played Dolemite, another legendary figure in the toast repertoire, in a spoof blaxploitation film of the same name in 1975:

The poet and musician Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin (1944 – 2018) recorded Hustlers’ Convention, an album of spoken-word toasts against live musical background, in 1973, with his group The Last Poets. The album, which combined funk, jazz, and poetry, would later earn him the moniker “Grandfather of Rap.” Nuriddin had learned to toast — a practice he called “spoagraphics” or “spoken pictures” during a stint in prison. Listen to the complete album here.

Chuck D of Public Enemy produced a documentary about Nuriddin’s album in 2014:

Another frequent subject of toasts is the Signifying Monkey. As you know, “signifyin(g)” is the practice of saying something with two meanings: the obvious meaning of the words and the hidden meaning, which can only be understood by members of a shared cultural group. It is a longstanding verbal practice in African-American speech, especially when dealing with (white) authorities, and has its roots in slavery.

The Signifying Monkey is a trickster figure in African-American folklore, derived from Yoruba mythology. He often appears in toasts with his friends and adversaries Lion and Elephant. Rudy Ray Moore toasts about Signifying Monkey in a clip from the movie Dolemite:

Demonstrating the roots of rap in urban toasts, the character of Signifying Monkey appears in some early rap, like the 1980 “King Monkey Rapp” by King Monkey (Jimmy Thompson):

And the 1988 “Signifying Rapper” by Schoolly D, in which Signifying Monkey is transformed into the trickster-rapper.

The lyrics

You know your daddy and he’s a faggot
And your mother’s a whore
He said he seen you sellin asshole door to door . . .
He said, your granny, she’s a dyke
And your other brother, he’s a faggot
And your little sister Loo
She’s so low she sucked the dick of a little maggot

are a version of “the dozens,” the game of exchanged insults traditionally played by black children in urban areas, typically focused on “yo mama,” such as:

Yo mama’s so poor, someone threw a cigarette in her yard & she said, “Clap yr hands, stomp your feet, thank the lord, we got heat!”

Yo mama so ugly that not even goldfish crackers smile back.

Yo mama’s so fat, she jumped in the air and got stuck.

Of course, as children become adolescents, the taunts become raunchier:

Yo mama like cake, everybody get a piece.

Yo Mama so dirty I called her up for phone sex and she gave me an ear infection.

Etc.

The dozens morphs/migrates into rap battles.

For a comprehensive library of information on toasts, black folklore, rap, and urban culture, check out this site.