The Baddest Man in Town

Eric McHenry at The American Scholar:

Mississippi John Hurt, Cab Calloway, Woody Guthrie, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, and Beck are among the hundreds who have sung a version of Stagolee’s story. Lloyd Price took a rollicking rendition of “Stagger Lee” to the top of the pop charts in 1959. Such brushes with mainstream success never compromised Stag’s street cred, though. In bars, barbershops, and prisons, he remained “the baddest n—– who ever lived,” the antihero of profane epics and rhyming “toasts” whose exploits offered a fantasy of freedom from life’s indignities. Stagolee haunts the prose of Richard Wright and Toni Morrison; James Baldwin worked on a novel about the character and late in his life published a long poem called “Staggerlee Wonders.”

Scholars of African-American studies generally agree that both the pimp protagonists of  ’70s blaxploitation films and the self-mythologists of gangsta rap are Stagolee’s direct descendants: mononymous, fearless, and fastidious about their name-brand apparel.

more here.