Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bill Keith

     Bill Keith passed away, too soon. I remember back in the 70's he created a sensation in bluegrass circles by using the fifth string in a way that had never been done before. It used to be that the fifth string was almost never fretted and used mainly as a drone string to keep the rhythm going. But Bill decided to play way up on the neck of the banjo and use the fifth string to carry the melody as well as chromatic runs up and down the scales. Eventually the "chromatic" or "melodic" style (or "Keith" style) came to recognized as its own style, different from the Old Time that we play in West Virginia or the Scruggs style played in Kentucky Bluegrass. The first time I heard Keith style banjo played was at Jd LaBash's music store in Berea Ohio. I was awed by Devils Dream and other songs and I even learned to play a few songs.

     Bill influenced an entire generation of banjo players. I never met him, but from all I have heard he was modest and unassuming despite the fact that he was idolized as a folk icon.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Stacker Lee (Stag O'Lee) Blues

          On Christmas Day 1895, "Stack" Lee Shelton fatally shot William Lyons in Bill Curtis' saloon after an argument in which Shelton first crushed Lyons' hat, after which Lyons retaliated by snatching Shelton's Stetson.   After shooting Lyons, Shelton simply picked up his hat and left.  Later, however, he was arrested, and convicted after a sensational trial which was widely covered in the press.
            From this tragedy, several songs were written, including this version by Mississippi John Hurt.   Mississippi John Hurt was an interesting story in his own right.   He was known to music historians like John and Alan Lomax, who had included  a few of his songs recorded in the 1920s, in their 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music.  No one knew what had happened to old John, but in 1963, a music historian by the name of Tom Hoskins decided to travel to a rural town called Avalon Mississippi, since Mississippi John had recorded the "Avalon Blues."  Perhaps people in Avalon might know something about the enigmatic musician.  
Amazingly, not only did people remember John Hurt, but he was still alive, making a modest living by farming.   Not only that, but John Hurt had a broad repetoire of songs that no one had ever heard before, and to top it off he was a warm, funny "country philosopher" of sorts, and an absolutely terrific performer that crowds of paying customers adored.  In his last years he was finally given some of the acclaim he richly deserved. 
   Mississippi John  tells a fanciful story about Shelton and Lyons, which is recored on youtube (John Hurt's story about Stacker Lee).   In John's account, the confrontation between the two men occurred at a card game after robbing a coal mine, perhaps even inside the coal mine itself.  Initially Lyons did not initially recognize Stacker Lee Shelton, but at some point realized that he was about to be killed and begged for his life.  From the standpoint of historicity, the account of Mississippi John Hurt is further removed from the historical event that the newspaper and trial records, but it makes for a good song.  
    As far as the name is concerned, the song is known under a variety of permutations, includding Stagolee, Stack O'Lee and dozens of others.   But there is little down that Lee Shelton was a historical person, and moreover it was the opinion of the Lomaxes (who were the pre-eminent American folk music historians of the past century) that he took his nickname after a riverboat, the Stack Lee, which was notorious as a house of prostitution.  Doubtless the other permutations occurred later on, especially because the rhythm of the song demands a two syllable first name.    
    He was a bad man, Stack Lee.  

Mister Police Officer, how can it be?
You arrested everybody but you never got Stack O' Lee
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee

Billy de Lyon told Stack O' Lee, "Please don't take my life,
I got two little babies, and a darlin' lovin' wife"
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee

"What I care about you little babies, your darlin' lovin' wife?
You done stole my Stetson hat, I'm bound to take your life"
That bad man, cruel Stack O' Lee

Boom Boom. Boom Boom
with the forty-four
When I spied Billy de Lyon, he was lyin' down on the floor
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O' Lee

"Gentlemen of the jury, what do you think of that?
Stack O' Lee killed Billy de Lyon over a five-dollar Stetson hat"
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee

And all they gathered, hands way up high,
at twelve o'clock they killed him, they's all glad to see him die
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee