Staggerlee

A personal project that looks at the movement of one song through genre, time, and race.

TEAM | solo project

TOOLS | InDesign, Photoshop

METHODS | concept mapping, concept modeling

map_on_wall.png

project Description

The song Staggerlee (or Stag o’ Lee or Stackerlee) is an interesting song for many reasons—it may be the most recorded folk song of all time, and it can be traced to a true event, a murder in St. Louis in 1895. It is also one of the few folk songs that, at first glance, appears to transcend race.  First recorded in an era of racially segregated music marketing, when records by African-American artists were labeled as “race” records while their white counterparts were labeled by genre of music, the earliest commercial recordings of Staggerlee were released in 1923, and were made by both black and white musicians.

 At the beginning of this project, I decided to simply model the movement of the song through genre and time. 

Staggerlee through the 20th century. Solid lines indicate the next song in that genre, dotted lines indicate direct covers.

Staggerlee through the 20th century. Solid lines indicate the next song in that genre, dotted lines indicate direct covers.

In many ways, the song seemed to reflect the larger trends in popular music the 20th century. Blues versions faded out around 1930, only to appear again in the 1980s and 90s. Pop music ascended in 1950 and dominated the last half of the 20th century. However, once I began to distinguish direct covers of the song, new patterns began to emerge.

By looking at both covers and total versions through the lens of race, one can see a pattern of appropriation for commercial gain. Lloyd Price’s 1958 version set off a golden age for Staggerlee recordings in the 1960s and many, many artists covered the Price version. However, far more white artists chose to perform a direct cover of Price’s version (up to Amy Winehouse just a few years ago), while few black artists opted for a direct cover. I decided to make these relationships mode explicit with a second model, this one showing the relationship between an original version and its subsequent covers. 

 
Direct covers of Staggerlee, with the original artist shown in the larger red circles. 

Direct covers of Staggerlee, with the original artist shown in the larger red circles. 

At the end of this project, I came to believe that covers can function in structurally different ways. Covers of Price’s version, for example, show a desire to find commercial success with something that has already been immensely popular. It's the music business's equivalent of the blockbuster sequel. However, covers such as Beck’s recording of Mississippi John Hurt’s are doing something a little different. Hurt’s version is considered by many to be the seminal version, but was never a commercial success. Beck’s faithful rendition doesn’t seek to cash in, then, but to access Hurt’s superlative performance. It’s a cover not for money, but for cultural capital. And, perhaps most crucially, these kinds of covers point backward, insisting that the listener remember the original version. Somewhere between these extremes—Beck's worship version, Pat Boone's commercial cash-in—is the blurry line between appropriation and cannonization.