February 15, 2017

Jackie Lee, son of Stagger Lee

 I recently guested on an episode of the Jack White-centric (what else?) Third Men Podcast, talking about blues music. When asked to name my favorite of Jack's blues covers, I qualified my answer by saying the song I was going to name wasn't a cover per se, though in a sense it is.  I went on to describe to the hosts, the Kaminski brothers, how excited I'd been to immediately recognize the source of the cover-that's-not-a-cover when I first heard it, as the song in question lifts sections almost word for word from the older version. I had so much more to say about this song and the unrecognized brilliance of it, but it would've been rude to hijack the podcast so here, in my own space, I can and will babble to my heart's content.  

Three Dollar Hat, from the 2015 Dead Weather album Dodge and Burn, lists all four members of the band as songwriters, but it's very obviously Jack's baby because it's very obviously based on Mississippi John Hurt's version of Stack O' Lee Blues.  Of all the members of the Dead Weather, Jack is the one who's likely to be most familiar with the Stack O'/Stagger Lee tradition that dates back some 120 years.  And Jack is the one who's been driven throughout his career to become a part of musical tradition. Or, as he says in a scene in It Might Get Loud, to "join the family" of song-writers of the early blues era. After almost 20 years of covering half the blues songwriters most people can readily name and many that the average fan could not, and writing blistering blues of his own, he apparently finally felt ready to take his place in this specific, hallowed tradition, to join the huge and highly respectable family of musicians who've sung versions of this song.  

"What I care about your two little babes and your darlin' lovely wife? You done stole my Stetson hat and I'm bound to take your life"  (As a sidenote, one of the things I will always love most about Mississippi John Hurt is how he sang about such violent subject matter in such a mild and delicate manner.  Like Grandpa telling a bedtime story... of murder.) 

The tradition of Stack O' Lee becomes more extensive the further you explore it. As described at staggerlee.com--

The history of the song tells many stories. It is an anthem of the dispossessed. It expresses fear of the scary black man, the evolution of modern music, culture theft from black to white, hero worship of the outlaw, the origins of a legendary character and the writing of a Myth.

No other song has so transcended its humble beginnings and been re-invented in so many genres, in so many media and by so many artists.

That site's list of recorded versions of the song ends in 2008, leaving it wide open for Jack to come along. It's interesting to note that Jack's pal Beck covered it in 1996 (using it as inspiration for something different) and 2001, and his former antagonists The Black Keys did it in 2004.  Maybe that's part of why he waited so long. 

The initial reaction to Three Dollar Hat that I saw from fans in the Vault and at one of the message boards had people latching onto the Frankie and Johnny reference, or calling to mind Nick Cave's version of Stagger Lee.  There are legitimate connections to both of those songs.

That little snippet of Frankie and Johnny tagged on at the end is blatant.  But turning Stack O' Lee and Billy into Jackie Lee and Johnny does more than just make this a mash-up of two song references, it adds an interesting psychological twist--  Jack White is both a John (born John Gillis, the name on his Third Man Records business card is "John A. White") and a Jack, so just who are the sweethearts Jackie and Johnny? Did he push the Stack O' Lee myth into homoerotic territory, with his bad man Jackie Lee killing Johnny more out of jealousy toward that bad-ass wife than concern over a $3 hat? That idea brings to mind Omar of The Wire, a series busting at the seams with Staggerlees, of which Omar was one of the most intriguing.  Or are Jackie Lee and Johnny two manifestations of the songwriter/narrator, a la Fight Club, and is the whole violent story taking place inside his own head, one side of his psyche destroying the other and then being destroyed in turn?  Either or both, it skews the tale in a way that's gleefully perverse.

(I'm going to admit right now that I have no idea what Alison Mosshart's vocal part has to do with the rest of the story-line. If anyone out there has any ideas about that, please let me know.)

Three Dollar Hat has much of the punk grittiness of Cave's version.  And considering the fact that his son is apparently named after another of Cave's songs, Henry Lee, Jack's surely familiar with this one.  I think any similarity between Three Dollar Hat and Stagger Lee is coincidental, though, a reflection of a shared attitude in bringing the legend into the contemporary era.  Because where Cave went for a sludgy rock'n'roll edge, Jack uses Three Dollar Hat as an opportunity to make the connection between blues and hip-hop apparent to anyone who hasn't caught on yet.

Another man who named his son after a song is Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers. In the book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus opens a chapter about Sly Stone and the myth of Staggerlee by quoting a 1970 jailhouse interview with Seale--

I named my son Malik Nkrumah Staggerlee Seale. Right on, huh?  He's named after his brother on the block, like all his brothers and sisters off the block. Staggerlee.

You'll find out. Huey [Newton] had a lot of Staggerlee qualities. I guess I lived a little bit of Staggerlee's life, too, here and there. That's where it's at. You move yourself up from a lower level to a higher level...

...Staggerlee is all the shootouts that went on between gamblers, and cats fightin' over women--- the black community.

Something else, huh? That's life.  And all the little Staggerlees, a lot of 'em!  Millions of 'em, know what I mean?

And so I named that brother, my little boy, Staggerlee, because... that's what his name is.

Farther on in the chapter, Marcus describes Staggerlee as a fearsome ideal--

...Nobody's fool, nobody's man, tougher than the devil and out of God's reach-- to those who followed his story and thus became a part of it, Stack-o-Lee was ultimately a stone-tough image of a free man.

From popular song, that ideal made its way onto the movie screen through the Blacksploitation films of the 70s.  Shaft and Superfly, Curtis Mayfield's Pusherman, these are manifestations of that bad black man standing up to The Man.  A few decades later, he veered back into music and emerged as rappers like Ice-T, Tupac Shakur, and Snoop Dog.  

In the early days of the White Stripes, Jack White expressed disdain towards hip-hop. He was asked about it in a 2003 Rolling Stone interview--

And you're not a hip-hop fan.
Not particularly. I find Out Kast and Wu-Tang Clan interesting. But I consider music to be storytelling, melody and rhythm. A lot of hip-hop has broken music down. There are no instruments and no songwriting. So you're left with just storytelling and rhythm. And the storytelling can be so braggadocious, you're just left with rhythm. I don't find much emotion in that.

But somewhere along the line, he began to hear things differently.  In an article just a couple years ago, which I can't find now to be able to link here, he mentioned that Jay-Z had told him that hip-hop is the blues. That idea gave me pause at first, but damned if he isn't right. Both genres are outlets for the trials and suffering of life, black life in particular.  And both frequently take on that braggadocio Jack mentioned, boasting of things like sexual conquests and material possessions, building up the singer/rapper's fearsome rep.  Following the trail of the Stack O' Lee myth shows how one genre followed from the other and Jack seems to have had that agenda in mind when writing his own entry into the tradition.

I've also seen complaints from fans over the past few years about the number of songs that Jack has begun rapping rather than singing, from I Cut Like a Buffalo to Freedom at 21 to Lazaretto. All of those songs, culminating in Three Dollar Hat (and his more recent contributions to A Tribe Called Quest's last album), must've been influenced by that conversation with Jay-Z.  What the fans bothered by this don't realize is that Jack's doing exactly the same thing he's always done-- He's singing the blues. He's just exploring new avenues, new ways of expressing them.  It's one of his typical subtle lessons in how music evolves. Which makes it a damned shame that this song ended up buried on a Dead Weather album that wasn't even toured.  But according to comments Jack made months ago in the Vault chatroom, the band did make some sort of video/movie-type thing for Three Dollar Hat.  He implied we fans are going to love it.  With any luck, one of these days he'll give it to us. Not doing so is just him being perverse again.

As an extra treat, here's one of the first recorded versions of Stack O'Lee--

Mea Culpa

I was annoyed at being made to feel like an asshole, and so I became that asshole.  And now I can't stop crying long enough to put on makeup for work.  Who wants to actually be the asshole they can sometimes turn into?  It's embarrassing and frustrating when we're confronted, as we rightly should be, and reminded of how easily we slip into that role and how hard it is to catch ourselves.  How do we deal with it when it happens?  Do we let the embarrassment inflame things further, or do we turn away and wallow in regret?  If the latter, at what point does regret turn into just plain self-pity?  Because self-pity is just another form of being an asshole.

How to regret without wallowing. Gotta figure that one out sometime.