Song of the Week: “Stack O’ Lee (Stagger Lee)” by Taj Mahal

by Douglas Cowie on 30 September 2016

Each Friday I pick a song–new, old, borrowed, blue–that’s been on my mind and in my ears, and write a short post about it.

This is “Stack O’Lee (Stagger Lee)” by Taj Mahal:

I heard Taj Mahal’s version of “Stagger Lee” Monday night while listening to my friend Kara’s radio show on WRCU-FM. I’ve liked Taj Mahal’s music for a long time (I heard him live once back in the 1990s), though I don’t listen to him all that often. Every time I do listen to Taj Mahal, though, I realize what I’m missing by not listening to him more.  There are a zillion versions of this song, and it’s worth, if you don’t know already, looking up the background to the song, which is basically a murder ballad about a guy killing his rival for knocking off his hat (which is a worse insult than it sounds).  Taj Mahal introduces it in this performance as a country blues, and what I love about his interpretation is the way he turns it into his own song and sound while keeping that country blues foundation in place.  He’s a wonderful guitar player, with a sound that is very much his own, and Taj Mahal is also, as you hear here, a wonderful singer, too; add to that the intelligence of his interpretation and you’ve got some magic.

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