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The importance of folklore in the annals of mankind can never be overstated. It’s one of the most frequently used methods in society for reflecting the ideals and beliefs of its people as well as a way to cope with pain, suffering and sorrow.

More than anything though folklore is a way to pass down from one generation to the next a living record of their cultural viewpoints, experiences and traditions to ensure those perspectives are not lost to time.

Though there’s many universally held examples of folklore that persist across regional and cultural lines every subgroup known to man has its own distinct folklore to reflect their unique circumstances.

For Black Americans living in a country that was literally BUILT on slavery and where even after the bloodiest, deadliest war in its history ended that insidious practice the losing side managed to systematically exert its governmental power over the next century to enact similarly draconian inequities under Jim Crow laws designed to terrorize and disenfranchise people of color, the role folklore played over the years in helping to endure this unconscionable evil became all the more vital.

After centuries of being institutionally vilified, with Civil Rights continually trampled underfoot and the ongoing state sanctioned targeted harassment, persecution and even murder by authorities of African-Americans that we see today, it can hardly be surprising that Black America has created its own proudly defiant folklore to come to terms with the scorn and hatred thrust upon it by a so-called “civilized” society.

Seizing upon that negative image in an effort to draw strength from it while working to overcome a deck that has been stacked against them from the very beginning African-American folklore produced an iconic image of its own…

The gangsta.


Gambling In The Dark
It may seem strange and even counterproductive for a community that’s long been denied respect and equal treatment under law to create an even more disreputable character as one of the cornerstones of their collective cultural identity. After all, isn’t that playing into the racists hands to champion such a notorious and unrepentant lawbreaker?

On the surface you’d think so, but that only shows you don’t understand the role folklore plays in ALL cultures, white and black, native and foreign alike, where one of its primary roles through the years has been to give voice to the powerless through the use of exaggerated fables.

Paul Bunyon and John Henry were conceived as larger than life characters who were impervious to the effects of back-breaking labor their audience had to endure in their own everyday lives. These images made it heroic to face the never-ending drudgery of such work and thus helped to give internal strength to those who needed it.

Hell, look at Superman himself… it’s hardly a coincidence that he was created in the midst of The Great Depression that made grown men feel powerless in their inability to find work and provide for their families, or that his popularity continued to soar when America was immersed in the Second World War against aggressive Axis Powers who had the upper hand militarily for much of the early campaigns putting the future of humanity in serious doubt.

Everybody needs something to alleviate the emotional burdens of life in crisis which is where folklore comes in.

To understand the appeal of this type of mythological outlet you need only look at the environment of a post-Reconstruction America where the horrors of racism were continuing unabated with more documented lynchings in the 1890’s than than any other decade in history to realize that building a legend around a proudly menacing figure like Stack-A-Lee makes perfect sense.

After all, why wouldn’t you want to celebrate a cocky, well-dressed black man with money and respect in his own community who had no fear of the white establishment… or for that matter of the devil himself.

Don’t Be Here When I Come Back
The details of this true life character saga are pretty universally recognized by now. At the tail end of the 19th Century there was a gambler and pimp named Lee Shelton who was a fairly powerful figure in the black enclaves of the St. Louis underworld.

Known as Stag Lee – though spellings vary – he got into a dispute with another well-known local figure named Billy Lyons, reputedly a member of a rival political faction. On Christmas night 1895 Shelton killed Lyons after an argument while drinking together during which Lyons grabbed Stag’s hat, an affront to someone’s pride, especially somebody like Shelton who wore flashy clothes as a sign of his cultural standing and power.

It was coldblooded murder for which Shelton was put on trial and sentenced to prison, eventually paroled in 1909 by which time the song was already widely known in Black America after being formulated during the 1897 trial, even written about in local papers that year, and passed from one bar to another by itinerant musicians, in some cases adding juicier details to make the story even more appealing.

Just before Shelton’s death in 1912 – imprisoned again for an unrelated crime – the song was transcribed by John Lomax, the legendary collector of black folk songs, as well as being published by rival folklorists in sheet music form which is how it began to spread to communities well outside its original reach.

By the 1920’s it was one of the more frequently recorded songs by a wide array of performers ranging from the genteel white dance band Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, who had the first hit with it in 1923, to the groundbreaking blueswoman Ma Rainey with none other than Louis Armstrong sitting in. The 1928 version of Mississippi John Hurt sort of codified the narrative into the recognizable form it’s taken on ever since.

But for the generation coming of age at the mid-point of the Twentieth Century who weren’t born when those early versions were made, nor had any real knowledge of the actual events that gave birth to the song, it was an otherwise little discussed figure in music history known professionally as simply “Archibald”, who brought the legend of Stack-A-Lee to life for the rock ‘n’ roll audience with an epic two-part single that made the Top Ten nationally, in the process making this the first legitimate gangsta hit in rock history.


Some Came Dressed In Orange Colors And Some Came Dressed In Red
Archibald was yet another in the long line of New Orleans piano wizards dating back to Jelly Roll Morton and while far less famous than the dozens of contemporaries who had much more opportunity to record, the man born Leon Gross was as skilled as any of them and naturally he makes the instrument the focal point of the song.

The intro to Stack-A-Lee (Part One) is rather brief but gripping all the same, as he’s playing a two handed barrelhouse riff to get you in the right frame of mind before he comes in to spin the harrowing tale.

But rather than use vocal histrionics to play up the sudden conflict over a wager that (in the song anyway) sent two men to their graves, Archibald is wise enough to act as a detached narrator, almost conversant in nature, and the effect is almost more perverse as a result, making the violence sound so casual that it’s taken in stride.

Dave Bartholomew’s bare bones arrangement highlights this by smartly keeping the focus on Archibald, eschewing horns altogether, a surprising choice that works brilliantly because it allows Archie’s piano to shine in the cracks, adding punctuation to lines that act as their own form of commentary on the proceedings with just shuffling drums and Harrison Verret’s ghostly banjo creating the faint rhythm behind him.

The first half of the record is the familiar part – the main action of the story in other words – setting up the characters, the dice game, the dispute over whether Stack rolled a seven (and won) or an eight which simply means he’d have to keep rolling until he made his point again to collect the wager. It builds predictably to Shelton’s vow to exact revenge and while we’ll never know whether Billy thought he was just bluffing for show or not, Lyons is soon tracked down in a bar and brutally executed after pleading for his life.

Retribution can be a bitch.


Side One ends cold, so the decision to make this a two part record was not simply done in post-production, cutting a longer song into two equal halves. Instead they cut each side as a separate performance which is surely what helped to make Stack-A-Lee (Part Two) the actual credited hit in its own right.

The reason for this is because it gets its own intro, a far more extended workout on piano which is such an alluring and mesmerizing sound that you’d listen to the rest of the song no matter how many people died as a result. As Archibald slowly works over the catchy melody with its percussive rhythmic accents it becomes lodged in your brain, his light touch becoming a thing of almost shimmering – if ominous – beauty, utterly hypnotic in its effect.

When Archibald returns with the vocal aftermath of the assassination the story actually manages to become even MORE intoxicating as Stack is shot by police (what a surprise!) but refuses to fall, making it all the way to his mother’s house where his last exchange with her is even somewhat touching considering the circumstances. As a result he becomes a real person rather than simply an outsized one-dimensional image and his death has an emotional impact it would so often lack in the more succinct versions that followed.

A Mighty Rumbling Under The Ground
Thankfully there’s no attempt to show remorse in any of this, no artificially tacked on moral to make the story more “palatable” and the manner in which Stack-A-Lee died, defiant and proud to the end, running roughshod over his adversary in Hell to the point where the Devil himself steers clear of him, reflects how his legend lived on and why he became such an icon in a community marginalized by the outside world.

Even the response by the women in the town to news of his passing paints him not as a brutal pimp, but as a ladies man whose many female admirers grieved his loss. Apparently it’s true what they say, that the penis is mightier than the sword… or the pistol in this case!

Maybe not surprisingly for a song that caught on originally by word of mouth, Archibald’s record did as well, its strength around New Orleans soon leading to interest in surrounding areas until it had gained enough traction to break nationally.

In the years since however its greatest impact turned out to have been as the inspiration and structural prototype for the #1 hit on the Pop Charts by Lloyd Price in 1958, a much fuller, brassier production that managed to take the menacing edge off the song… a cultural whitewashing fit for an era of crossover aspirations.

Thus the most authentic (which means it should go without saying is also the most compelling) version of Stack-A-Lee remains this one laid down by Archibald in early 1950, a time when Black America still was forced to create its own heroes – and celebrate its own successes on record – in virtual isolation from the rest of society.

It wouldn’t take long for the music itself however to make the next major breakthrough into that society, the power of rock ‘n’ roll cracking those stubborn defenses and setting into motion a gradual, but ultimately unstoppable, transformation of popular culture.

In everyday life of course there’s still far more sinister entrenched resistance that needs to be brought to their knees, but while the methods used may be different than the simplistic reckoning that Lee Shelton sought for his grievances, the indomitable will he personified remains unbowed in the community he represents.


(Visit the Artist page of Archibald for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Cousin Joe (September, 1947)