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New article on Stagolee and John Henry

GUEST,Jim Hauser 08 Dec 20 - 01:52 PM
cnd 09 Dec 20 - 10:58 AM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 09 Dec 20 - 04:40 PM
The Sandman 09 Dec 20 - 05:40 PM
Cool Beans 09 Dec 20 - 06:41 PM
Mrrzy 10 Dec 20 - 10:55 AM
The Sandman 10 Dec 20 - 11:03 AM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 10 Dec 20 - 08:00 PM
cnd 11 Dec 20 - 01:04 PM
The Sandman 11 Dec 20 - 01:44 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 11 Dec 20 - 01:56 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 12 Dec 20 - 01:55 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 12 Dec 20 - 02:00 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 20 Dec 20 - 04:56 PM
Hagman 21 Dec 20 - 02:50 AM
Hagman 22 Dec 20 - 02:46 AM
Cool Beans 22 Dec 20 - 12:38 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 23 Dec 20 - 09:15 PM
The Sandman 24 Dec 20 - 06:19 AM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 24 Dec 20 - 12:09 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 24 Dec 20 - 12:26 PM
GUEST,Joseph Scott 24 Dec 20 - 02:49 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 24 Dec 20 - 05:19 PM
cnd 16 Apr 21 - 04:04 PM
Lighter 19 Apr 21 - 07:34 AM
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Subject: New research on Stagolee and John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 08 Dec 20 - 01:52 PM

Hi folks,
Some of you may recall a thread I created years ago about my research on racial resistance, protest, and rebellion in the John Henry ballad. I have written an article which draws on that research, plus includes a discussion about the "Stagolee" ballad and the connection between the two ballads. For those familiar with Cecil Brown's book Stagolee Shot Billy or who have an interest in the Stagolee ballad, I believe you will find that my article contains much about the ballad that has never been published before.

The article is titled Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs? It has been posted to Lamont Pearley's African American Folklorist website.

Below is the address for the article.
http://theafricanamericanfolklorist.com/2020/11/29/twoblackfreedomsongs/

Jim Hauser
https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/home


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: cnd
Date: 09 Dec 20 - 10:58 AM

Fascinating read, and excellent research.

I assume you're familiar with the John Henry related ballad, This Ol' Hammer/Spike Drivers' Moan? https://www.balladofamerica.org/this-old-hammer/

It's a bit more defeatist that the regular John Henry songs, a sort of post-partem reflection on his life and death, but if you haven't it could certainly supplement your research well.

You can see some previous discussion of the song here as well as numerous other threads on Mudcat


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 09 Dec 20 - 04:40 PM

Hi cnd,
I'm happy to read that you enjoyed my article.

I don't recall ever coming across the song "Spike Driver's Moan", so I googled it and found a nice recording of it by Dave Van Ronk. It appears to be based on Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues", which is probably loosely based upon work songs known as hammer songs, some of which make mention of John Henry. ("This Ol' Hammer" is also a hammer song.) I write about John Henry hammer songs on my website.


You're right about these songs bringing out a darker ("defeatist") aspect of the ballad. Scott Reynolds Nelson gets into this in his excellent book about John Henry titled Steel Drivin' Man, which discusses hammer songs in some detail. Nelson is a historian and very knowledgeable about the history of labor and railroads. He also brings out the racial aspect of the John Henry legend and the importance of putting the ballad in its proper historical context.

Jim Hauser
https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/home


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: The Sandman
Date: 09 Dec 20 - 05:40 PM

so in the version i know ,they are glad to see Stagolee dead., Police officer, how can it be
You arrest everybody but cruel Stagolee
That bad man
Cruel Stagolee
Billy Linus told Stagolee
"Please don't take my life
I've got two little children
And a loving wife"
That bad man
Cruel Stagolee
Do I care about your two babes
Or your loving wife
You done took my Stetson hat
I'm bound to take your life?
That bad man
Cruel Stagolee
Stagolee stood on the gallows,
Head held high
Twelve o'clock they killed him
We were all glad to see him die
That bad man
Cruel Stagolee
https: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=4scedJs6hC8https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4scedJs6hC8 This version does not fit your theory


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: Cool Beans
Date: 09 Dec 20 - 06:41 PM

For a fine overview of these and other real people who became iconic songs, I recommend Richard Polenberg's book "Hear My Sad Story." Polenberg, a retired Cornell history professor, just died last week.


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: Mrrzy
Date: 10 Dec 20 - 10:55 AM

God bless your little children, son, and I'll take care of your wife...


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: The Sandman
Date: 10 Dec 20 - 11:03 AM

spike drivers blues IS based on john henry. joh hurt talking about and the lyrics of his version of stagolee do not back up your theory


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 10 Dec 20 - 08:00 PM

Sandman,
Regarding your comment about Mississippi John Hurt, he apparently did not believe that Stagolee was a black man. In a 1963 interview with Tom Hoskins, he claimed that both Stagolee and Billy were white. Below is an excerpt from that interview. Also, the full interview is published on Stefan Grossman's website at the address below. The relevant part of the interview is a little bit further than halfway through the interview.

https://www.guitarvideos.com/interviews/mississippi-john-hurt


Tom: John, gettin back just for a minute to Jesse James and Stag O'Lee. Now Stag O'Lee was a colored man was he not?
John: He was not.
Tom: He was not, he was a white man?
John: That's right, white.
Tom: Was Billy the Lions a white man?
John: That's right, that's right.
Tom: I always heard Stag O'Lee was colored.
John: White, White, White, White.

I believe that it is quite possible that a substantial number of black people--maybe even a large majority of them-- thought of Stagolee and Billy fighting over a Stetson as symbolic of the fight for black freedom. And I believe that John Henry's race with the steam drill held that symbolic value, also. I don't have any proof. It's just my theory, and I don't claim that ALL black people thought this way. For example, churchgoing black folks probably were repulsed by Stagolee's killing of Billy and would have never imagined the battle between them as symbolic of a fight for manhood and black freedom.

But I think most people--black and white--think of Stagolee as being black. The reason that Mississippi John Hurt thought he was a white man will probably never be known.


And regarding Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues", I'll get back to you about that hopefully tomorrow.

Jim Hauser


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: cnd
Date: 11 Dec 20 - 01:04 PM

That's interesting about John Hurt thinking he was White. I'd always assumed he was black, and I think that assumption was part of why Lloyd Price's original 1959 pop version of the song was banned on US radios -- because it encouraged black violence.

(Looking back into that theory, the general consensus online nowadays seems to be that the original song encouraged violence, but I can't shake the feeling that I've heard someone purport that Staggolee was black and Billy was white and that's why the song was banned.0

Spike Driver Blues is the song I'd meant to bring up, instead of Spike Driver's Moan. I look forward to your thoughts on that song.


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: The Sandman
Date: 11 Dec 20 - 01:44 PM

as far as i am concerned colour did not cross my mind stagolee was a psychopath[ wheth he was black and white or any other colur never occurred to me he was a bollocks and consequently people were pleased to see him dead


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 11 Dec 20 - 01:56 PM

Sandman,
You're right, I agree with you that Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues" is based on "John Henry". But it is also based on work songs which have been classified as John Henry hammer songs. So, in my response to an earlier question, it would have been more accurate for me to say that "Spike Driver Blues" is based upon both songs. Below are the first two stanzas of Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues." These same verses (except for minor variations in language) appear in the John Henry hammer songs collected by Guy B. Johnson which appear in his book "John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend" (published in 1929). For comparison, an example of stanzas from one of those hammer songs is also below. Clearly, "Spike Driver Blues" draws from the hammer songs. But, it also has other verses which make reference to John Henry, so, in my opinion, its is based upon both the ballad and the hammer songs.

"Spike Driver Blues":

Take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone
Take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Tell him I'm gone, just tell him I'm gone, I'm sure is gone

This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won't kill me, but it won't kill me, but it won't kill me
This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won't kill me, but it won't kill me, ain't gonna kill me



Hammer song from Johnson's book:

This is the hammer,
Hammer killed John Henry.
This is the hammer,
Hammer killed John Henry.
Won't kill me.
Lawd, Lawd, won't kill me.

Take this hammer,
Hammer to the captain.
Take this hammer,
Hammer to the captain.
Tell him I'm gone
Lawd, Lawd, tell him I'm gone.


Hurt's recording of "Spike Driver Blues" came out in 1928. It was preceded in 1925 by Sippie Wallace's more obscure "Section Hand Blues", a recording which is one of the earliest by an African American to make mention of John Henry. Like Hurt's recording, Wallace's has stanzas which are very similar to the stanzas cited above which appear in the John Henry hammer songs. Her reference to Lincoln freeing the slaves serves as a comment on how black laborers were treated after slavery's end. Selected verses are below.

If my captain ask for me
Tell him Abe Lincoln done set us free.
Ain't no hammer on this road
Gonna kill poor me.

This ole hammer killed John Henry,
But this hammer ain't gonna kill me.

I am heading for the shack,
With my shovel on my back.
Although money's what I lack,
I'm goin' home.

Wallace's recording is just one of many which I cite in my website (John Henry: The Rebel Versions) as examples of racial resistance, protest, and rebellion in the ballad and legend of John Henry. Some of these examples appear in my article published on The African American Folklorist website. The article also points out the connection between "John Henry" and the other great black ballad "Stagolee" and discusses my theory that both songs are black freedom songs. Specifically, I believe that many African Americans saw John Henry's race with the steam drill and Stagolee's fight with Billy over a Stetson hat as symbolic of the struggle for black freedom. The web address for the article is below.

Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
http://theafricanamericanfolklorist.com/2020/11/29/twoblackfreedomsongs/


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 12 Dec 20 - 01:55 PM

Regarding the verses which I posted above from "Spike Driver Blues" and the John Henry hammer songs, they play an important part in helping us to understand the significance of the John Henry legend. They expose for us the harsh realities that many black laborers--whether they worked for wages or on a chain gang or other prison work gang--lived with each day: brutally hard work and the possibility of death or disabling injury on the job. Many African Americans who sang and told stories about John Henry did exhausting and dangerous work in tunnel, railroad, and levee construction. They also worked in mines. John Henry was a hero to them all, but the hammer songs they sang show us that the hammer could be not just a symbol of work, but also of death. I view these songs to be protests against the poor treatment of black laborers, and the attitude that they were expendable That attitude was reflected in the saying “Kill a mule, buy another. Kill a ni**er, hire another” that often appears in books about the blues and black history.


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 12 Dec 20 - 02:00 PM

Related to the question about Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" being banned, I found a webpage on songfacts.com which states:

Lloyd Price recorded two versions of this song. The first had Stagger Lee and Billy gambling (Stagger Lee shot Billy at the end), the second, rushed out by ABC-Paramount after hearing complaints from radio listeners, had Stagger Lee and Billy arguing over a girlfriend, who goes back to Stagger at the end.

Dick Clark thought Price's original version was too violent, so Price performed the tamer rendition for his appearance on Clark's American Bandstand.

https://www.songfacts.com/facts/lloyd-price/stagger-lee


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 20 Dec 20 - 04:56 PM

For any folks who find it hard to believe that Stagolee was a black hero, I offer the story of "Roy" and "Nathan" as one possible explanation for Stagolee being a hero (other than my theory of the fight over the Stetson being symbolic of the fight for black freedom). Their story is told in the book Deep South: A Social and Anthropological Study of Caste and Class by Allison Davis, Burleigh Gardner, and Mary Gardner. "Roy" and "Nathan" were two black men who were executed for killing other black people in Natchez, Mississippi in 1934. As I point out in my article in the African American Folklorist, black individuals who killed other black people were normally sent to prison rather than executed, but the local white population perceived the killings by Roy and Nathan to be part of a black crime wave, and, feeling threatened by it, called out for making examples of the killers by executing them. Their case is summarized in James C. Cobb's book The Most Southern Place on Earth.

Cobb writes that "It was standard practice for condemned criminals (who were almost always black) to seek forgiveness for their sins publicly, and often ostentatiously. The condemned was actually requesting forgiveness not only from God but from whites for disturbing the order and sanctity of caste society. In essence, the repentant offender was condoning the punishment he was about to receive for breaking laws made and enforced primarily for the benefit of whites."

The local authorities tried in various ways to coax both Nathan and Roy into participating in this ritual, including having a preacher talk to them. Nathan "got religion" and participated, but Roy refused to do so. On the day of his execution, Roy stood calmly at the rope, defiant until the very end. He was the living incarnation of Mississippi John Hurt's Stack O'Lee "standin' on the gallows, his head way up high."

After the executions, the black community viewed Nathan to be a coward. But Roy was seen as a hero for his courage in the face of death and defiance of white authority. A mythology quickly developed about him, including a threat he supposedly made of breaking down the door to Hell and breaking off the devil's horns.


The URL of my article in the African American Folklorist is below
http://theafricanamericanfolklorist.com/2020/11/29/twoblackfreedomsongs/


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: Hagman
Date: 21 Dec 20 - 02:50 AM

By co-incidence, a mate in the UK just yesterday sent me a link to Samuel L. Jackson (the actor) singing what they call "Stackolee" from the 2006 film "Black Snake Moan."

Stackolee/Stagolee is very much black in this version.....

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrs4yqwL-Wg


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: Hagman
Date: 22 Dec 20 - 02:46 AM

A version appears on the recent "Harry Smith 'B'-Sides" compilation from Dust-To-Digital, as Track 19, on Disc 1.

It's described as "Stackalee. Early example of instrumental dance track unearthed, mainstream academics forced to accept evidence of pre-war dance party" "By Frank Hutchison - Harmonica instrumental with guitar. Recorded in 1927. Original issue Okeh 45106."

Eli Smith's frank and unhelpful note reads, "Why did Frank Hutchison, the great W. Virginia guitarist and songster, decide to record a guitar/harmonica instrumental version of this great blues ballad? And why was it then released as the B-side of the vocal version? We do not know."


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: Cool Beans
Date: 22 Dec 20 - 12:38 PM

Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" was a huge hit, played on the radio in the US, complete with its reference to "Two men gambling in the park." I never heard of it being banned but I grew up listening to the radio in New York.


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 23 Dec 20 - 09:15 PM

In relation to Hagman's post about the newly released Frank Hutchison recording of Stagolee, an old unreleased recording of the ballad that I would love to see finally released is Lucille Bogan's "Jim Stack O'Lee Blues." Or maybe I'm wrong--maybe it actually has already been released. Does anybody know whether it finally saw the light of day?


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: The Sandman
Date: 24 Dec 20 - 06:19 AM

so, Why did John Hort think he was white, and is his colour of importance? ,
on the subject of john henry, is john hardy a related song? or appalachian version


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 24 Dec 20 - 12:09 PM

Regarding the question about why John Hurt thought Billy was white, I don't know the answer. All I know for sure is that in a 1963 interview he TOLD Tom Hoskins that Stagolee and Billy were both white.   

And I suggest that based upon black-white relations in 1963, we will never know for sure if Hurt really BELIEVED they were both white. Who knows, maybe his insisting that they were both white served as an indirect--and relatively safe--way of saying that one of the two (Billy) was white.

Anyways, my point in bringing up Hurt's statement is to show that it is not set in stone that black people thought Stagolee and Billy were both black. His claim that Billy and Stagolee were both white suggests that any combination of black and white could have existed in the minds of the black musicians who performed the ballad and in the minds of black listeners. And I believe that the Stagolee/black and Billy/white combination was the most likely combination. And it's important because then the ballad is about a black man fighting with a white man for possession of an object--the Stetson hat-- which was a symbol of manhood during a time when black people were denied their manhood--and freedom--by the white ruling class.

The symbolism is a key to understanding the ballad. Black people had to communicate in code, double meanings, all that kind of stuff due to the realities of the world in which they lived. And when I say "communicate", I'm including music. James Baldwin once told Nikki Giovanni "we had to smuggle information, and we did it through our music, and we did it in the church."


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 24 Dec 20 - 12:26 PM

Regarding the question about "John Henry" and "John Hardy" being related songs, at one time there was confusion about whether John Henry and John Hardy were the same person. That was back in the early part of the twentieth century. Part of the confusion was due to John Hardy being a steel driver just as John Henry was. Also, in some documented versions of the ballads, stray verses from one song appear in the other song. But John Hardy was a different individual, a badman figure who was a murderer.


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: GUEST,Joseph Scott
Date: 24 Dec 20 - 02:49 PM

Jim,

That's a lot of imo largely implausible connecting of one dot to another (e.g. if blacks loved Stetsons, that _isn't_ somehow evidence that someone who knocked one off in order to insult would be thought of as white) when given your obvious a priori interests you could be writing about "Railroad Bill" instead: Morris Slater _did_ fight the white establishment.


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 24 Dec 20 - 05:19 PM

Joseph,
The example you give isn't exactly what I am saying about the Stetson. Here is what I wrote in the article:

So if the Stetson represented manhood, then Stagolee and Billy’s fight for possession of it COULD HAVE BEEN symbolic of the black man’s fight for manhood.

I don't claim to have absolute, undeniable proof that the symbolism existed. It's my theory. And I think theories are useful tools and worth consideration. And I believe that I've found a good bit of evidence which lends creedence to my theory, and other evidence which at least suggests that there is much more to the story than simply one black man killing another black man.

For me, Stagolee is a fascinating puzzle. If Stagolee was simply a cold-blooded killer, why would James Cone write "The victories of Stagolee and High John the Conqueror embodied [an oppressed people’s] struggle for dignity"?

And why would Sterling Brown place Stagolee in a place of honor alongside Casey Jones and John Henry in one of his greatest poems?

He begins it with:

Lemme be wid Casey Jones,
Lemme be wid Stagolee,
Lemme be wid such like men
When Death takes hol' on me,
When Death takes hol' on me.

And ends it with:

An' all dat Big Boy axes
When time comes fo' to go
Lemme be wid John Henry, steel drivin' man
Lemme be wid ole Jazzbo;
Lemme be wid ole Jazzbo.

I don't think that James Cone and Sterling Brown thought Stagolee was a cold-blooded killer. Their writings are pieces of the puzzle; pieces which fit with my theory.

Another piece of the puzzle in my article which fits with my theory deals with Stagolee's reputation as being one of the baddest of all black badmen. It was a much, much "badder" act for a black man to do battle with a white man than simply another black man. And that's because of the consequences of doing such a thing. Professor Molefi Kete Asante, in his book Erasing Racism, points out that “even the baddest man in town would seldom attack the vilest white man.” So if Billy was imagined to be white, we can see Stagolee's badness on display through his actions in the ballad. Of course, we do see Stagolee's badness on display in those versions of the ballad in which he tangles with the devil, but those versions are in the minority.

Your reference to Railroad Bill/Morris Slater suggests to me that you might see him as possessing a much higher degree of badness than Stagolee. And I could see why you might think that. Railroad Bill engaged in a string of gunfights with the law, i.e. the most potent tool of the white power structure. I believe there is even a story of him escaping from one of those gunfights, and then returning to the battle despite the fact that he had already been wounded. Still, I think that Stagolee could be on fairly equal footing with Railroad Bill if we view Billy DeLyon to be a white man.

Jim Hauser
http://theafricanamericanfolklorist.com/2020/11/29/twoblackfreedomsongs/


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: cnd
Date: 16 Apr 21 - 04:04 PM

Jim, you may be interested in learning about a version of Stagger Lee entitled "Ollie Jackson" -- you can listen to it here

"Starks says he learned the song from a Charlie Washington of Kansas City. It employs the Stagolee tune and oft-used chorus to tell a similar story of Ollie Jackson's murder of brothers Dick and Babe Carr over a crap game in St. Louis, June 7, 1901."

There are two recordings of "Ollie Jackson" recorded by Starks (click), as well as a version of Stagger Lee entitled "Stackolee"


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Subject: RE: New article on Stagolee and John Henry
From: Lighter
Date: 19 Apr 21 - 07:34 AM

As I understand it, "Stagolee" isn't "a song made about black manhood," it's a song that became especially popular because of a character whose actions appealed to singers' sense of what a certain kind of black manhood should have been like.

Similarly, a white outlaw ballad like "Jesse James" (as everyone seems to agree) reflects a spirit of rebelliousness against law and authority as well as sympathy for the daring but underdog outlaw. That's one reason for its popularity.

But it wasn't consciously composed to be "about" those things.


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