Making a Bad Man Even Worse

By Jason Diamond

Over at Lit Drift, they discuss one of the greatest bad guys in American folklore: Stagger Lee. That nasty murderer who’s crimes have been documented for well over a century is, undeniably, an American legend that serves as a perfect foil to the good guy tall-tales of Paul Bunyan and John Henry,  who (may have) come into existence around the same time as Lee entered the public consciousness. Long before Mississippi John Hurt recorded what is possibly the most famous version of the tune in 1928, and prior to Woody Guthrie, Fats Domino, as well as Ike and Tina gave their own take on the classic standard, Stack O’Lee had been a subject sung about almost as much as the devil himself.

As Lit Drift also points out, there is also Nick Cave’s take on the song.  It’s on the classic Murder Ballads album, and it’s possibly the filthiest, most depraved take on the song in existence.  While the good folks at Lit Drift go on to say that “Stagger Lee in this version is basically Satan himself, committing horrific things that I can’t even describe in this post”,  it’s important to point out some of Lee’s antics and words in the song aren’t entirely original.  I’m going to go out on a limb, and guess one of the acts in question is when Lee states to a victim he is about to sodomize “I’d crawl over 50 good pussies to get to one fat boys asshole.”  Of course after committing the act on a guy named “Billy”,  Lee then does the gentlemanly thing and shoots his victim.  To put it lightly, the whole affair is pretty fucking dark, but in the tradition of any great bluesman, Cave simply transplanted bits of inspiration from one song to another, and reinterpreted the whole thing using his own twisted imagery.

In 1969, Johnny Otis (one of the great white bluesmen of all-time) decided to cash in on the popular “party album trend”, taking his then teenage son/guitar prodigy, Shuggie (later famous for the classic “Strawberry Letter 23“) and created what might be the filthiest blues album ever, under the moniker of Snatch and the Poontangs.  On that record, “Snatch” gave his own dementedly comic take on the Lee legend, but it’s from the ramblin’ musings of the over-the-hill “Two Time Slim” that Cave borrows the “crawling over” lyric.  In fact, if you give a few listens to Murder Ballads album that includes Cave’s take on Lee, you will notice his unusual approach to lyrical inspiration more than on any other recording he has ever produced.  (His inspiration is something I’ve made mention of before).  While some could call it plagiarism, it’s re-telling the story, which is a trend as old as the story itself.

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  1. man great catch, jason. i just listened to this album and the whole thing is priceless. really, priceless.

  2. There are some really amazing “dirty blues” albums out there. I have something coming up in a few weeks, but “Snatch” is one of the best by far.