Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sartorial Matters

Lately I’ve been working my way, rather slowly, through Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax. I’ll have more to say about that later, but there was a bit on Disc Four that caught my attention, and reminded me of another exchange I had with a reader some time ago, regarding sartorial clues in the lyrics of “St. James Infirmary.”

Lomax conducted his interviews with Morton in 1938, and much of the discussion centers on New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century, when Morton (born in 1890) was a young man. It’s hard to know how much of what Morton says is shaded by the tricks of memory, and straight-up, self-serving revisionism. But there’s not much reason to doubt his offhand remark: “In those days, myself, I thought I would die unless I had a hat with the emblem in it named Stetson. And I didn’t rest until I got myself a Stetson hat and a pair of Edwin Clapp shoes.”

Aside from being an interesting early artifact of intense brand loyalty, this bit makes me recall a passage of “St. James Infirmary”:

When I die, I want you to dress me in straight-laced shoes
Box-back coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain,
So the boys will know that I died standin' pat.

This patch of the song and its mention of various sartorial details was suggested to me as a particular thing to focus on by reader Charles Neveu. The lyric as noted above is the way Louis Armstrong sang it at the end of 1928. Two of the lyric variations on “Those Gambler’s Blues” in Carl Sandburg’s book American Songbag have similar passages -– but while both mention the “box-back coat” and “twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain,” neither specifies a Stetson hat. Stetson hats, by the way, date back to 1865, and are still around today.

Two things you’d think I’d be more on top of are the writings of Louis Armstrong, and scholarship concerning the song “Stagolee.” I certainly should be more conversant in both, but hey, this site is just a hobby, what can I say? Anyway, it seems Louis Armstrong actually mentions Stetsons in his book Satchmo: My Life In New Orleans (which I’ve never read, although I should have done so by now). And the song “Stagolee” certainly mentions the Stetson. (Specifically, a milk-white Stetson, at least in some versions -- which explains something that came up in an earlier post.) In fact, per Cecil Brown’s definitive book Stagolee Shot Billy, “Stagolee” was about a dispute over a Stetson: “Stack Lee” Shelton shot Billy Lyons for taking and refusing to give back his Stetson hat, and plucked it from the dying man’s hands. This 1895 incident gave rise to the song that not only topped the charts by way of (one-time New Orleanian, pictured at left) Lloyd Price in the late 1950s, but lives on more than 100 years later. Now that’s product placement.

In any case, when Fess Williams recorded "Gambler’s Blues," he had his character request burial in "in a box-back coat and a high-roller hat,” plus the twenty-dollar gold piece. Mattie Hite’s character requested “A box-back coat and hat” in her 1930 version. When Irving Mills (“Joe Primrose”) himself sang it, in 1930, his version left out funeral-request specifics altogether; the same was true when Charlie Teagarden sang it that year as part of Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang. Same for Jimmie Rogers.

Another reader -- Scott Graves of Dark Ryders (check 'em out) -- pointed out the “Stagolee” connection, and directed me to this interesting essay by Jim Hause, which asserts:

The dispute over the Stetson may be the real key to understanding how [Lloyd Price’s version of] "Stagger Lee" was interpreted by African-Americans. This hat was very popular among black men during the first half of the twentieth century. Louis Armstrong notes this in his book Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, in which he explains that many blacks coveted Stetsons and often purchased them on installment plans. The reason these hats were so popular is that they held a special meaning. In his doctoral dissertation, "Stagolee: From Shack Bully to Culture Hero," Professor Cecil Brown, the world's foremost authority on the legend of Stagger Lee, points out that Stagger Lee's hat "represents his manhood." Brown relates that men wore Stetsons as symbols of "newly won black male masculinity" at the time of the occurrence of the murder upon which the legend is largely based.

The murder took place in 1895, which means that many of the men who wore the the Stetsons were former slaves or sons of slaves. Therefore, in representing the manhood of African-Americans, the Stetson was ultimately a symbol of freedom. The black man's manhood is tied to his freedom and his struggle for freedom.

Mr. Neveu's thought was that by isolating certain sartorial details of the song, I might isolate something crucial about its origin. But I think with a song like this, it’s not quite so easy. Yes, Armstrong dropped a Stetson reference that -– per Jelly Roll Morton, at least -– has some relevance in linking Armstrong’s rendition to black New Orleanians. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that the Stetson had relevance in St. Louis as well –- and even more clear that the lyrics of “St. James Infirmary” (and “Gambler’s Blues”) have been repeatedly finessed by the many people who have sung them. It’s less likely that the details of any particular rendition can reveal the one, true authorship of the song, than that they will reveal, yet again, the absence of one, true author.

Having said that, both Mr. Neveu and Mr. Graves have proven once again how rich and deep this song is, and how much we have to learn from it. For that I thank them.

As for what exactly a “box-back coat” is … well, you tell me.

Lloyd Price - #1 Pop Hits of the 60s & 70s (Digital Version)
"Stagger Lee," performed by Lloyd Price