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Stagger Lee: How Violent Nostalgia Created an American Folk Song Standard

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JournalJournal of Extreme Anthropology
DatePublished - 21 Feb 2018
Number of pages10
Pages (from-to)1-9
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

There is a long tradition of storytelling in folksong. Before methods for transcribing and
later for recording definitive versions existed, the oral tradition was used to pass on tales
and deeds. And, as anyone familiar with ‘Chinese whispers’ will know, this process is not
always accurate. Even when transcription methods had become available, the accuracy
of the record can be questioned, as is the case in Sabine Bearing-Gould (1834-1924), an
18th century Anglican reverend, perhaps most famous for his earnest documentation of
werewolves (Baring-Gould 1973), as well as many collections of English folk song, which
were often unsurprisingly edited from the pious perspective of a religious man of the
time, likely due to the collectors profession. Often, such songs are cautionary or moral
tales, and thus the process of collecting and editing can change an oral history
dramatically.
This essay will consider how one such instance, the song Stagger Lee, reflects changing
attitudes of the audience and the narrator towards violence and masculinity in its
portrayal of an initially real-world, and later supernatural, violent protagonist. How, and
why this paean to violence, with its fetishistic vision of extreme masculinity, has become
something of a standard in the American folk canon. It considers both the retelling of
Stagger Lee’s tale in song, and subsequent appropriation by cinema in depictions of
race, sex, and violence as admirable or heroic qualities. In particular, a kind of sexual
violence which is perhaps at odds with stereotypical views on homosexuality amongst
the African-American community, which spawned, and in some cases continues to
celebrate, Stagger Lee as a mythoform, archetype, and antihero

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