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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Who Is Stagger Lee?

I am usually very pleased by a book that inspires me to further research.  I recently came across an exception to this rule.

Leavin' Trunk Blues is the second  mystery in which the detective is blues historian Nick Travers.  I absolutely loved the first, Crossroad Blues, in which Travers investigates the death of  musical prodigy Robert Johnson.

In this book, there is a character known as Stagger Lee.  Nick Travers, doubts his existence because Stagger Lee is an urban legend.  Neither Travers nor the author, Ace Atkins, reveals how or why Stagger Lee became a legend, or what role the legend plays in African American culture.

What he does give us seemed to me a fairly disappointing standard sort of mystery. Travers investigates on behalf of a blues performer who has spent forty years in prison for a crime she hadn't committed.  It's a sleazy case involving predictable motivations.  If it weren't for that tantalizing reference to Stagger Lee as a legend, I wouldn't have cared about any of it. Stagger Lee is the only mystery that I wanted this book to solve.

So let's pull the curtain back and discover a bit about this Stagger Lee figure.  It turns out that there's a Google site devoted to him created by librarian James P. Hauser.  It can be found at:

The Stagger Lee Files

 Hauser reveals an evolution of the Stagger Lee legend from badass to freedom fighter in the context of the civil rights movement.  He traces this change back to a song from the 1950's.   In current political discourse, the same figure may be labeled a terrorist or a freedom fighter.  The distinction is quite subjective.  For me, the difference between them resides in the targets of their actions.  Freedom fighters target an unjust government and its institutions.  Terrorists usually take aim at people who are innocent bystanders.  I don't feel I know enough about the history of how Stagger Lee has been portrayed since the 1950's to be able to categorize him.

Regardless of  how we think about this legend, Stagger Lee's  roots are in  blues music where he is always an outlaw, always liminal .  Liminality is an anthropological term invented in order to discuss individuals who exist outside the bounds of society. If  Ace Atkins had chosen to truly address the Stagger Lee legend through  Leavin' Trunk Blues, it might have been a more compelling novel with greater depth.



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