Briefly Recommended: Stagger Lee, Grand Bahama Goombay

faked by Monday, June 9th, 2008

Stagger Lee. Derek McCulloch (w) and Shepherd Hendrix (a). Image, 2006.

Lee Shelton gunned down Billy Lyons over a hat. It’s an oft-told tale: There’s “Stagger Lee,” “Stack-o-Lee,” “Stackalee,” and a few dozen other variations on the familiar blues/folk/rock song. How? Why? Different versions of the song often give different answers to those questions—to say nothing of those versions in which Billy shoots Lee. The multiple and ramifying nature of “Stagger Lee” is at the heart of McCulloch and Hendrix’s Stagger Lee, a graphic novel whose purpose is two-fold: to tell the “real” story of Lee Shelton and Billy Lyons, reconstructed from a tattered paper trail, and to reflect on the song’s persistence and its protean nature. Stagger Lee succeed most admirably at the latter task: While the historical fiction McCulloch and Hendrix craft to fill in the context for the actual murder is entertaining enough, it occasionally falls back upon stock characters and conflicts to fill the many gaps in the historical record. Their forays into folkloric metafiction, however, are playful, funny, and illuminating, making good use of the unique properties of the comics medium to juxtapose and contrast multiple versions of the song simultaneously. Artist Shepherd Hendrix demonstrates impressive range: His dense but rarely cluttered pages move smoothly from violent shootouts to tender love scenes to academic treatises complete with pie charts. (The flashy paisley suit he dresses Lee in, however, somehow manages to hurt my eyes even in sepia—probably part of the point, I realize, but man, that’s hard to look at.) Thanks to PrettyFavorite QW for turning me on to this book!

Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay. Various Artists. Numero Group, 2007.

My “7 Songs for the Summer List” would have looked very different if I’d bought this album the day before I wrote it instead of the day after. I’m a big fan of the Numero Group’s various archival projects. Their “Eccentric Soul” series rescues gems (and okay, some debris) from long-vanished regional record labels who once competed with the giants of Stax and Motown. If like me you find the Big Hits of Motown hard to listen to—or rather, hard to hear—because of their sheer ubiquity in our boomer-dominated world, the Eccentric Soul series is a useful reminder that the airwaves were not always so nationally monolithic as they are these days; that the oldies in perpetual revolution were in fact not the only thing on the radio in their day; that you might only hear the songs recorded on the Capsoul label in Cleveland if you lived there or if you somehow ended up with a secondhand jukebox; for me, these collections of obscurities and outtakes actually rehistoricize and defamiliarize some of those Motown and Stax tunes whose familiarity always threatens to inspire contempt.

Grand Bahama Goombay is from their “Cult Cargo” series, which focuses not on the “traditions” of the Bahamas or Belize but on how those traditions appropriate, transform, and are transformed by American music. I dig this approach, as it avoids the stultifying preserved-in-amber attitude of many musicologists that can make even the most well intentioned collections a snooze. Anyway, GBG is a strong contender for my favorite release in either series (though I doubt it will edge out the gospel/funk collection, Good God!). It’s certainly one of the most consistent releases, with nary a bum track on disc—rare for an archival compilation.

The track I’ve been coming back to the most lately is “Words to My Song” by Dry Bread. It’s not as much giddy fun as dance-party funk number “Goombay Bump”—is it wrong to say that I hear “Goombay Bump” playing as the camera pulls back to the chopper and the final credits roll over the big beach-party dance number at the end of an imaginary 80s teen sex comedy?—or as infectious as the abstinence ode “Don’t Touch That Thing.” (One of the offered reasons you shouldn’t touch that thing: “one of these times Jimmy gonna miss and slip.” More songs about abstinence should be this bawdy and pragmatic, I think.) But I like the chilled-out vibe of “Words to My Song,” which conjures up the image of summer love’s last splinters smoldering in a beachside firepit in the wee hours. Plan on being near a pool or a beach this summer, or even just on wishing that you were? Let Grand Bahama Goombay be your soundtrack. I recommend buying the CD from your local purveyour of musics—partly because it’s the Right Thing To Do, and partly because if you download it you’ll miss out on the swell liner notes and photos that accompany each of the Numero Group’s releases.

MP3: Dry Bread – Words to My Song

Speaking of the “7 Songs” meme, don’t miss Darren’s contribution, which I’m about to go listen to right now.

Publishers, Record Labels, Advanced Cybernetics Corporations: PrettyFakes welcomes review copies; contact us via prettyfakes at gmail dot com.

One Response to “Briefly Recommended: Stagger Lee, Grand Bahama Goombay

  1. gorjus says:

    I remember you telling me about the Eccentric Soul reissues, and just last night I was trying to “listen” to Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (sadly, no luck). And I kind of love this Dry Bread song (and their name, and the lyrics, and the metatext of singing about “Your Song” and so forth).