Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Great Writing....and Stagger Lee

Tom Schreck, author of the Duffy Series

As a semi-professional writer I often get asked about what constitutes great writing.

Hard to say but it's kind of like that Supreme Court judge said about porn, that is; "I know it when I see it." (I'm still trying to get him to send me the links to those specific sites.)

I recently came across a piece of what I think epitomizes super great writing. (not sure if "super great" fits into the great writing category or not.)

It wasn't Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway or Sellers. It was Lloyd Price.

Here it is, his version of the iconic rock and roll song, "Stagger Lee."

And why I think it is great.

The night was clear, and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumblin' down. . . 

(Perfect description of a setting in very few words. "The moon was yellow." -Can't you just see that? The moon isn't usually described as yellow--but it is, isn't it?)

I was standin' on the corner
When I heard my bull dog bark.

(He's got a bull dog--not a dog, not a hound dog, which would be the appropriate cliche considering it was the fifties. A bull dog is different and therefore it catches the reader's eye.)
He was barkin' at the two men
Who were gamblin' in the dark.

("Gamblin' in the dark." Isn't that all you really need to know? It sounds seedy and you know what's going on in three words.)
It was Stagger Lee and Billy,
Two men who gambled late.

("gambled late'--again tells you everything you need to know in two words.)

Stagger lee threw a seven,
Billy swore that he threw eight.

(Great craps reference. As a crap player myself I think what happened was Stagger Lee crapped out by throwing a seven but tried to screw Billy by claiming it was an eight. We're left to assume that Stagger had bet on eight.)
"Stagger Lee," said Billy,
"I can't let you go with that.
"You have won all my money,
"And my brand-new Stetson hat."

(Stagger Lee cheats and wins not only all the money but the poor brother's STETSON hat. A damned STETSON! You know that means trouble.)
Stagger Lee went home
And he got his .44.

(Not a gun, not a shotgun, not a pistol...a 44. Much more descriptive word.)

He said, "I'm goin' to the ballroom
"Just to pay that debt I owe."

(Short, tight dialogue. fantastic!)

Go, Stagger Lee

(Here's the verse that the sociologists examine. The background singers are CHEERING Stagger Lee who not only is a cheater but now wants to murder over being accused of cheating. From a writing standpoint it's great because it goes against cliche.)
Stagger Lee went to the ballroom
And he strolled across the ballroom floor.
He said "You did me wrong, Billy."
And he pulled his .44.

"Stagger Lee," said Billy,
"Oh, please don't take my life!
"I've got three hungry children,
"And a very sickly wife."

(More great dialogue tightly written.)

Stagger Lee shot Billy
Oh, he shot that poor boy so hard
That a bullet went through Billy
And broke the bartender's bar.

(Stagger Lee shoots the guy even though he gets begged not to. Man, this is a bad MFer! And how about the bullet going through Billy and smashing the bartender's glass. Hold it--the BARTENDER'S glass? He's not supposed to be drinking--now we know more about how seedy the place really is!)
Go, Stagger Lee, go, Stagger Lee!
Go, Stagger Lee, go, Stagger Lee!

(And the back up singers cheer Stagger on! Great Stuff!)

Rolling Stone writer Greil Marcus wrote that this song inspired the Black Panthers, influenced Sly Stone's swagger and was responsible for every image of a tough, street-smart Black man in every motion picture and literary depiction.

I don't know about all that. I do know that different versions of the song have been recorded by 400 different artists and that it is based on a Christmas Eve murder in St Louis in the 1800's.

i don't really care--I just now that it tells a story in very, very few but descriptive terms and that it ignores cliches and how stories are "supposed to be."

Which to me is the essence of great, great writing.

Go Stagger Lee!


  1. Tom, I must have heard that song a hundred times and never gave any thought to how well the lyrics portrayed the scene and action. Of course, now it will be running through my head all day, but maybe it will help me to write even better.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. I haven't heard it a hundred times, but I will by the end of the day...

  2. I think there's something to be said for song lyrics and great writing. Not only does it have to be sparse and still tell the tale, it has to have a rhythm to it, which I think must be part of great writing, even in novels. "Stagger Lee" has a very jolting, hard pace to it, which suits the story, as opposed to, say, the lilting smoothness of "Whiskey Lullaby." That song tells a sad tale of alcoholism and co-dependency, and starts with what I consider one of the best noir lines ever written in a country song: "She put him out, like the burnin' end of a midnight cigarette."

    Excuse me. I need to go put on some music and write a story.

  3. And if you wnat to know the real crime behind the song:


  4. Poetry - and song lyrics are poetry - must be tighter than prose. I noticed also the rhymes, which free the lyricist to write more descriptively. I just looked at two or three lines of a poem I'm working on and realized how differently I'd write them - I'd have to write them - if they were part of a story.

    That said, I loved the analysis. (I guess it's the literary critic or academic in me.) Excellent breakdown and a good lesson.


  5. It's tight and evocative, all right, and sick right down to the bone.

    But yes, song lyrics and jokes are the tightest stories around. Thanks for pointing this one out!

  6. Great analysis, Tom.
    I've felt the same way about "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" written by Bobby Russell and performed first by Vicki Lawrence and more famously by Reba McEntire in the early 90s.

    Like in "Stagger Lee" The word choices are picture perfect and convey setting, action, and so much character background in so few words. Everything a listener needs to know clear and concise.

    Thanks for getting the creative juices flowing.

  7. Wow I never really thought about the song and its lyrics before. Thanks for the insight and you're right lots of tight writing and avoided the cliches.

  8. Love this song, and so doubly nicely done. Songs can do more than pump us up to write. They can teach the "how!"

    I always assumed "the bartender's glass" meant the mirror behind the bar, but I'm officially switching to your interpretation. Seedier is better.


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