(A content warning for this story. The narrator and principal character are both racist and express racist views. I hope it goes without saying that I don’t share those views. Also, this is a horror story, with all that that implies.)
They used to call it honky-tonk music. It’s not a style you get much any more, and you young folks won’t understand when I talk about it, but that was some powerful stuff. Music that could get you the way no other music would. And Luther Davenport was the king of that music, until he wasn’t.
Now, I know some of you young fellas think you know about honky-tonk music, but that shit you get now, that ain’t the same thing at all. That’s music made by some pretty boy from California or New York, pretends to be a bad boy from Arkansas and sings about trucks and murders when he’s come right outta Harvard.
Real honky-tonk music, the real stuff… that was made by men who wore suits and ties, nice as you like, and who would smile and would call you sir or ma’am. They was clean shaven, and when they got money they showed it. Shit, when they didn’t have money, they still acted like they had it. Luther Davenport, he had his name written in rhinestones on his fiddle when I first knew him. Didn’t own a second pair of underwear, but he had them rhinestones, because when you went out on that stage you had to give the folks who’d paid to come and see you a goddamn show, because if they wanted to see some poor boy didn’t have a change of underwear they could see that at home and save themselves a nickel. And Luther always wore a hat. Not a little cowboy hat like Hank Williams or someone would wear, this real big stetson. Never saw him take it off, and I knowed him for ten years. Because how he looked was important. People like Luther wouldn’t go on stage in blue jeans any more than they’d go to church on Sunday with their cock and balls hanging out for all to see.
Not that Luther went to church much. Not by the time I knew him. Because that’s the other thing about those men. These modern types, they’ve all got good big mouths on them, and they can talk about being bad men all day long. Not one of them’s a real hard man. Not the real type, the type you know if you say one word they don’t like, they’ll take a pool cue and ram it up your asshole til it comes out your mouth, and keep that aw-shucks shit-eatin’ grin on them the entire time like it ain’t nothin’, so sweet that you’re half convinced they’re doin’ you a favour even as the tip of the cue pokes you in the nose still stinkin’ of your own shit. That was Luther, and by God you knew if you met him that he was the real deal. But you ask those ladies in his audience — and Luther got the ladies all right, hoo boy did Luther get the ladies, even though he walked all funny cuz he’d had the rickets as a kid, almost like his legs was on backwards — and they’d tell you “no sir, not Luther Davenport, that’s a good man, a fine man, a charming man,” and you’d swear they believed it too, ceptin you’d see that look in their eyes that none of them was giving any real good, fine, charming men.
Oh, I’m sorry. You’re one of them enlightened sorts they’ve got now, ain’t you? The ones who think that women don’t like bad men. Well, maybe you’re right. What would I know? I’ve only spent eighty years knowin’ them. Maybe women like pussies. Could be you’re right. Certainly could be.
But anyway, I was tellin’ you about Luther, and here you go distractin’ me. I’m an old man and I don’t have time for distractions. And before you say anything, I know you didn’t say anything, but you were going to.
So anyway, Luther. I know he done some bad things, and maybe he even deserved what happened to him in the end. None of us can say exceptin’ God, and Lord knows I don’t think Luther was ever the Lord’s favourite person, so maybe he did deserve what happened. But still, that boy could sing, and he could play. He was the greatest fiddle player you ever heard, and he did something I never seen any other fiddle player do in all my life — he taped a phonograph needle to the body of his fiddle, and plugged it in to a guitar amplifier. My god the sound that thing made, it was like it was a fiddle and a guitar and a harmonica all in one. Your normal fiddle player, he goes skriddlededeede all like that, and no matter how hard he tries, you know it ain’t a man’s instrument. But Luther, his fiddle had balls.
And his voice… his voice shoulda been awful. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of Luther’s records — they don’t play ’em much on the radio since what happened, and I can’t say as I blame ’em — but he had this voice that was sorta low and sorta nasal at the same time, which you wouldn’t think was something that could happen if you hadn’t heard it. And he could not hit the notes. He was always about a quarter-tone flat, which was weird because he could obviously hear the notes right cuz he could play them on his fiddle. I once ribbed him about that — when I knew he was in a good mood and he hadn’t been drinking that day — and he told me “Buck, it just sounds different in my head than it does when it comes out,” and then he stared into the distance for a second and said “lotta things seem different in my head than outside it”, and I didn’t press the matter none, because my mama didn’t raise no suicides.
But the thing is, it didn’t make no odds that he had that godawful voice or that he couldn’t hit the notes, cuz he sounded real, he sounded like he meant every word, even when he was singing some shitkicking nonsense like “You can be my Dinah, and I can be your Mo/We’ll start the sparks a flyin’ and see where we can go”.
But the shitkickin’ weren’t what Luther was about, no, not by a long way.
You see, Luther was a hard-workin’ man. Again, you don’t get those any more, not really. Back then, life was hard and you had to work for everything you got, and even if you was a musician or a writer or something you had to work. Like you, boy, you’re a writer. You sit there at that little computer, you can just hit the back button if you got something wrong, you can type with those little bitty keys which move if you breathe on ’em. I knew a guy back in the fifties, used to be a writer, he’d write a new story every day, about cowboys or gangsters or whatever. Good stories they was, too. Well with that giant motherfucker of a typewriter, and him pounding away at it, and having to redo the whole page if he fucked up, he had arms like a steelworker’s. And it was like that for the musicians, too. Luther would ride in some shitty automobile with transmission so fucked up that you could feel every rat-turd the car drove over, and he’d try to sleep in the back seat while I drove for a few hours, and then we’d swap over, and we’d be driving fifteen hours to the next show, and then we’d play six, seven, eight, nine hours at a time.
And when you’re doing that, you need to learn every song that ever was writ, just so you got something to play, because there ain’t many people want to hear that Dinah-Moe shit when they’re trying to get drunk, no matter what the record men said. And so what Luther would do, every town he played, he’d find the oldest, meanest, mother he could, and he’d go up to him, and he’d ask him what old songs he knew. He’d get his fiddle out, and he’d play with the old fart for a while, and then he’d have the song in his head and he could play it perfect next time. He learned every song you could imagine, and some of them were real old-timey.
He especially liked murder ballads, and he could talk about them for hours. Luther wasn’t much of a man for talkin’ generally, and he wasn’t someone who’d got much schoolin’ — he said he could read a contract and add up well enough to know if he was getting screwed by a promoter, and he didn’t need more than that. But you get him talkin’ about these old murder ballads and he’d talk about them for hours. He’d talk the way I do now — he’d just keep talking and talking.
These murder ballads, you see, they’re songs about real people usually — people who killed their lady, or their wife, or their husband. Usually there’s some man, and he’s got a gal he’s sweet on, and he takes her for a walk by the river, and he fucks her, and then she gets in the family way, and she’s all “you gonna marry me, then?” and he’s thinkin’ about this, and then he thinks “what do I want with a wife and kid, when I’ve already got this big stick I can hit her with?”, so he hits her with the stick and throws her in the water, and then they hang him.
There’s somethin’ like ten million of these songs, because apparently there’s a lot of folks who think that hittin’ a woman on the head with a big stick sounds like more fun than looking after a kid, and most of them take place in the Old West, but according to Luther many of these songs dated back to the old country, to Ireland or Scotland or wherever, and they only changed the places in them when people moved. Like there was this one he learned, where he said it was originally from the 1500s.
And Luther had this theory that the songs went back even longer than that, just we don’t know about them because nobody writes this shit down — after all, there’s always another murder and another song.
But the one Luther was absolutely obsessed with was this song called “Stagger Lee”.
I don’t know if you know that song — I don’t know if you young folks know anything about your past, and given what I’m telling you today, maybe it’s a blessing if you don’t — but it’s this song about two men, Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons, who are playing poker and get into a fight. Stagger Lee gets angry and smashes up Billy’s hat, so Billy pulls Stagger’s hat off him and that gets Stagger pissed, so he goes home, gets his gun, and comes back to the bar. He shoots Billy.
In some versions of the song, he gets hanged, and he goes down to hell, and he’s such a bad motherfucker the Devil himself gives up his throne to Stagger Lee. That’s the version that Luther liked the best.
Now I know that they say they found who the real Stagger Lee was, and I’ve no doubt that’s true. No doubt at all there was a real Stagger Lee. But when Luther was thinking about this song, none of us knew nothing about that.
But that didn’t matter to Luther anyway. What he knew was that he loved that song, and then he found out it was about a … what do they call themselves now? A black fella, that’s it. And that just made Luther furious. Even more than everything made Luther furious
I didn’t think of Luther as racist, because back then everyone was racist, and don’t let them tell you no different. Even I know that, and I’m a racist old white man myself. But I never hated anyone. Never had the time for it. I just let them get on with their lives and I got on with mine, you know? I just loved the music, and I’d listen to anyone singing anything if it was good music.
And there was some fine, fine music made by black people back then, and half of it ended up in the honky tonk sound. You can’t have honky-tonk music without a touch of boogie-woogie thrown in. I know our pianner player, Donnell Wakeley, used to love all them negro players, and he used to say that the three best players in the world were Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Willie the Lion Smith. You couldn’t play honky tonk music without playing black music and white music together, all mixed up so you couldn’t tell which was what any more.
But Luther always said that no black man ever played a tune worth a damn, and that all the best music was the Appalachian music, that honky-tonk music was pure hillbilly, and no-one could persuade him otherwise. And so when he heard a version of “Stagger Lee” which called Stagger Lee a black man… well, he loved that song, and it just ate him up inside that anyone could write a song like that about a black man. I think he always thought of himself as Stagger Lee, as the kind of man who’d kill you over a hat, and he wanted it to be his song. And Luther was someone who hated everyone. Yeah, he hated black folks because they was black, but he also hated Jews, and rich white folks, and poor white folks, and Catholics, and… well, he was someone who would just find hisself a reason to hate you, and make one up if he couldn’t.
Oh sure, he hated me too. He tolerated me cuz I was useful to him. Weren’t many honky-tonk bands had a pedal steel player back then, and I added a touch of class to the whole proceedings, you know? But I don’t think he hated me as much as the rest, because he could see I loved him.
Oh you young’uns have such dirty minds, Jesus! No, not like that! It was the music I loved. Because that man was a musician’s musician, you understand? Musicians know when another player has chops, and them old honky-tonk players had some of the best chops you’d ever get. People rave about them jazz guys, and yeah, some of them are pretty impressive if you go for that sort of thing — it’s not my music at all, but I can listen to it and say “yeah, that cat can play” — but you ain’t never heard anyone as good as the best country players, the bluegrass guys with their mandolin runs so fast they could outrun an express train, them Nashville session cats who could cut twenty hit singles in three hours… just because the music’s simple, people think it’s not hard, and they couldn’t be more wrong. When it’s simple, you have to be that much better.
You had to work your ass off to be that good, and Luther worked his ass off, but there was something more to it than that — he was obsessed. And… I suppose this is where the story really starts, when we was running through “Stagger Lee” one time.
Now, the thing you have to understand about that song is it’s not just one song. It’s a whole load of songs about the same dude and his murder, and everyone does it different. Sometimes it has different words, and sometimes it has a different tune, but it’s all “Stagger Lee”, and Luther knew all those versions. I once saw him play “Stagger Lee” for three hours straight and never repeat a verse, just adding more and more details, bits from how the Fruit Jar Guzzlers used to do it, bits from Carson Robison, even bits from Duke Ellington, though he’d never admit that he listened to jazz.
But this time, Luther stopped playing and turned to me.
“Bud,” he says to me, “do you ever wonder about when Stagger Lee is gonna happen?”
I musta looked confused, because I had no clue what he was even talking about, cuz he straight away said “Never mind, it don’t matter” and picked his fiddle up agin as if to carry on.
“No, Luther,” I says to him, “what was it you was going to say?” Because I know Luther and he’s someone who thinks about things a lot more than he talks about them. If Luther had something to say, it was probably worth hearing.
“You don’t wanna know, I should just keep playin'”
Now, I was on dangerous ground here, because if Luther was tryin’ to get me to press him on this and I didn’t, then I’d get a whuppin’, and if I did press him and he wanted to drop it, I’d get a whuppin’. And if he was just pissed and wanted an excuse to give someone a whuppin’, I’d get a whuppin’ whichever I did. So I decided that, fuck it, I’d tell him to go on, because if there was something interestin to hear here I wanted to hear it.
“No, Luther, tell me what you meant. I really want to know.”
Well, thank the Lord for small mercies, because that turned out to be what Luther wanted me to say. And he got to talking.
“Don’t you think, Bud, that there’s prophecies in the world?”
“Well, Luther, I have to say as I do, because the Bible says it and I ain’t gonna argue with the Bible.”
“Well, don’t Stagger Lee feel to you like it’s a prophecy, not just a normal song?”
I try to figure out how to respond to this. I eventually settle on “Huh. Ain’t that a thing. I never thought of it that way before, Luther.”
He grins. “Shit, Bud, I know you ain’t thought of it before, because you ain’t done the studyin’ like I have. But I’m tellin’ ya. It has all the signs of being an honest-to-God prophecy. Why else would ol’ Stag be that much more popular than all them other murder songs? Why do people keep on writing about him? It ain’t because the story is that much better than all them other ones. Hell, them n____rs probably stole it from a white man in the first place, just like they stole country music and called it the blues, and just like Willie Lyons stole Stag’s hat and needed killin’. It’s because Stag is an avenging angel. He’s there to do justice and make righteousness prevail, and his horns are the symbol of his power.”
“Shit, don’t you even listen to the song? He’s a stag, of course he’s got horns. Why do you think he wears the hat? It’s so the rest of us don’t see his power.”
“Right, of course.”
“So, anyway, Stag’s a angel, that much is obvious. And Willie, well, ol’ Willie Lyons, he should be called Willie Liar, shouldn’t he? Because he’s the Devil himself. He tells Stag all sorts of lies, about havin a wife and kids and all sorts, just so Stag won’t kill him. But Stag sees through old Willie, doesn’t he?”
I nodded again. That ain’t how the song goes. In the song Stagger Lee is a bad motherfucker and he kills Willie Lyons because he just wants to kill a man, but Luther knew the words as well as I did so there weren’t no point in arguin’ with him. Just agree with whatever he said, and after all, it want as if any of this shit mattered, was it? It was only an old song.
It wasn’t until a long time later that I watched some old horror movie and saw them talking about the Horned God that I recollected this conversation, and when I did it sent shivers down my spine, let me tell you. Maybe Luther was even right, given what happened, maybe it was a prophecy. But me, I think it’s patterns. Maybe all them murder ballads are patterns. And maybe someone’s putting those patterns there. I dint used to think that, but now I’m pretty sure I do.
Though I could be wrong. I’m wrong about a lot of things.
When Luther started out tourin’, he was playin’ all them kinda songs I was talkin’ bout earlier, like that Dinah-Moe song, and he’d do all these comedy songs about women drivers and smokin’, and that one he used to do about how everyone was too busy listenin’ to the radio to make whoopee and that’s why there weren’t as many kids around any more. Heh. He used to change that one up when we got booked to do a sacred show instead of a secular one. Then it’d be about how people was too busy listenin’ to the radio to go to church, and that’s why there was so much sin and there were so many kids around now. Used to get the same laughs in the same places too, that one.
But it was when we played the Louisiana Hayride for the first time that things really started to change. If you don’t know about the Hayride, I don’t blame you, because this was a long, long time ago. But you’ve probably heard of the Grand Ole Opry at least, right? Glad to see you got some culture! I’m kidding you, don’t worry. Well, the Opry was the place everyone wanted to play, of course. If you were anyone you played the Opry, and if you were anyone else you listened to it. If you got up on that stage and Roy Acuff said your name, you knew you were going to get more bookings in the next month than you’d had in the previous five years, and they’d be better paid bookings too.
Well, if the Opry was the major leagues, there was other shows that was the bush leagues, and everyone played those all the time. You’d be in Buttfuck Nebraska and play the Buttfuck Hootenany or whatever, some show that wanted to be the Opry but wasn’t. And then you had a couple of farm teams, where the people who were good but not quite good enough yet would play. The Louisiana Hayride was one of those. It was where you went if you wanted to get on the Opry, or sometimes if you played the Opry one time and they hated you and wouldn’t book you again. Like Elvis, you know he only played the Opry once, right at the start of his career? They threw shit at that poor boy, he was basically dragged off stage. The very next week, he was on the Hayride instead, and he played there every week for two years, til his first motion picture came out.
But if you hadn’t been kicked off the Opry, the Hayride was where you went on the way up the ladder, and there we were, playing it, with a live radio audience of millions. But Luther said before we went on that he didn’t want to do none of them crowd-pleasers. He wanted to do something different, something special.
So when we went on that stage, we done one song about murder after another. Knoxville Girl, Rose Connelly, Transfusion Blues… we done all them songs one after another, and you know how I said that Luther made you believe whatever shitkickin’ song he was singing? Well, when it come to those murder songs, it really sounded like he was talkin’ about himself.
A course, the crowd went hog-wild over this. They’d heard all o’ them songs before of course, sung by the Louvin Brothers or Bill Munroe or Spade Cooley or what have you, but they’d never heard any of them sung like this, and with that electric wail from Luther’s fiddle.
I mean, the rest of us played pretty good that night. Yep, pretty good. But we might as well have not been there. Luther could have made that crowd sit up and beg just with his fiddle and his voice and that smile. He’d sing one o’ them songs about murderin’ some poor girl, and then straight away he’d go back to that shit-eatin’ grin and say “aw shucks, well thank you kindly friends, it’s such an honour to be here in the great state of Louisiana playin’ for the greatest audience a fiddle-player could ever hope for”, and all them Cajuns would whoop and holler like it was Jesus Christ himself on that there stage. And then he’d just go into the next song about a killin’, like that was just wonderful and well, didn’t every good ol’ boy do a bit o’ killin’ now and then?
And he ended the set with “Stagger Lee”, and my God you ain’t never heard that song until you heard Luther Davenport play that song that night on that stage. There’s a lot of people done that song a lot of different ways, but I can’t even listen to any of them no more. They’re not “Stagger Lee”, not like Luther sang it. Luther Davenport sang that song and made you feel like it was happenin’ right there in front of you, and you could see Willie the Lion lying there clutchin’ at his own gut, the blood pouring out of him and him screamin’ and dyin’ as Stagger Lee calmly steps up to him, pulls his hat off his dying head, sticks it on his own, and walks off, wiping Willie’s blood off his shoe on Willie’s face as he goes.
That audience… that audience went wild like you ain’t never heard, and I do believe they was still cheerin’ for us — for Luther — when the next week’s show started.
They was callin’ Luther up, beggin’ him to do more shows, and we played them — including the Opry itself, a few times — but something else changed with him that night. He’d never been what you might call a placid man — he had always been someone you’d not want to cross — but… well, I would say he was like a man possessed, but you might think that was a little too close to the truth.
And again, he’d never liked black folks none, but he took to rantin’ and carryin’ on about miscegenation, and about how they was pollutin’ white blood and suchlike. And I ain’t sayin’ many people didn’t agree with him at that time, because hell, it’s not as if we was some enlightened Harvard graduates or nothin’, but there is a big difference, and I’m sure you know it, between someone who just doesn’t like the black folks that much and someone who talks about nothin’ else but hatin’ them and killin’ them.
And he just kept on talkin’ about that, and about that song, and about how that song was the truth, and how Stag Lee was a white man and an avenging angel, not a black man with a bad attitude.
We should have seen the main event comin’ of course — and I suppose some of us did, in a way, but none of us could have imagined what happened after.
It was in St. Louis when it finally happened, and it was on Christmas night. Now, you might think we was having a good time of it, it being Christmas and all, but that is not the way it was. We was hundreds of miles away from our families, in Missouri where they got no love for good music anyway. Shit, name one country singer ever came from Missouri, other than Porter Wagoner? You can’t. And Porter Wagoner was hardly good honky tonk music, was he?
So we’re sat around in the bar where we’d played our first set. We’re on our break, and we’re going to do another set in an hour, but we might as well not bother since there were only three other people in the bar. We’re drinking whisky and playing poker and bitching about being away from our homes on Christmas day — and remember, back then, most of our families didn’t have no phones and there was no such thing as a long-distance call, not if you wanted to eat that month — when this shitheel comes up and starts sassing Luther.
Luther’d been talking like he did, about how all the best music came from the Appalachians, and that was because, in his opinion, that was where the only pure white folks were left, and you could tell that because the music was all old Irish and Scotch, and the Irish and Scotch did the only two things worth a good goddamn in this world, music and whisky, and I was allowing as that was the case, and talking about how my own Daddy was from Germany, and that the Germans made a good beer but never got the hang of whisky, and maybe that was why they never got drunk enough to make the real good music, only that longhair orchestra shit.
Although didn’t Daddy get a taste for whisky once he come over here? Oh my yes… but that’s a whole nother story.
Anyway, this shitheel comes up and starts telling Luther that the only good music is boogie woogie and that the only place you can get good boogie woogie is St Louis (and, he allows, maybe Chicago too, but nowhere else). And this riles Luther up more than I’ve ever seen him riled up before. I see him squeezing those cards in his hand so they’re all folded up til they look like the accordion that’s sat on the stage waiting for our next set. And he stands up, and those backwards-looking legs, they don’t straighten up as such, but they still make him look a good foot taller than he had before — and Luther was a tall man anyway, a long lanky beanpole of a fella. And I swear his eyes was actually shining with fury, and he sticks out his tongue and hisses, and I swear I ain’t never seen a tongue that long even on a cow.
So he’s standing there and hissing, and then he says to this good ole boy “Do you know who you’re talking to, boy?” and he says it real low, so deep that you could feel it rumbling in your guts, the way you could when J D Sumner would hit that low note on “Wayfarin’ Stranger”.
Now this boy must have had a death wish, either that or he didn’t have the sense he was born with, because he just says “yeah, I’m talkin’ to a shitkickin’ fiddle player who don’t know nuthin’ about good music”
“I learned the fiddle from Bill Chitwood hisself, boy. From the Georgia Yellow Hammers. Greatest fiddle player this country has ever seen. Well, second best, after me.”
I remembered him telling me, a few years back, before he got so ornery about black folks, that it had actually been Andrew Baxter he’d learned it from. Baxter was a black fella who’d sit in with the Yellow Hammers and played better than any of ’em. But if there’d ever been a good time to remind Luther Davenport that his favourite group had been integrated, this was not the time for it.
“Sayin’ someone’s the greatest fiddle player in the country is like saying they’s the world champion at eatin’ dogshit. It may be so, but only because no man in his right mind would want to beat him.”
Luther walks toward the boy. “You’re in for a whuppin, now, son. And by the time I finish with you, you’re going to be thanking me for it.”
The boy finally realises that he’s going to get his ass kicked, and he picks up a bottle and throws it at Luther’s head. He misses, and it hits Luther’s hat. Now normally, you’d expect the hat to just come off his head. That’s not what happened. The hat went up and back, but stayed on his head. And it stayed there because it was held there by a pair of horns.
And all I could think then was of the tales my daddy had told me about the Krampus, with his long tongue and his goat legs and his horns, and about how he’d come out at Christmas night to take the bad kids to hell.
The boy screamed, and fell to his knees.
“Please, God, don’t…”
“I asked if you know who I am, boy…”
“You’re… you’re the devil…”
No, I thought, he’s the Krampus.
“I ain’t the devil, boy. Shit, I could whup the devil’s ass just as easy as I could whup your’n.”
Luther pulled out his revolver.
“Please, please, don’t kill me! I’ve got a wife! I’ve got kids! Please…”
“Well, ain’t that swell? They’s gonna have a chance to get a better husband and father then, ain’t they? What a perfect Christmas present.”
He cocked the gun and pointed it at the boy.
“I’ll tell you who I am, son, I’m Stag Lee, I am the avenging angel of righteousness, and you can tell the devil when you see him that I’m coming for him next”.
He shot the boy in the guts, and stepped over his body as he lay screaming and walked toward the door. Then he turned back, took his hat off and dropped it on the boy’s face.
“Debt repaid”, he said as he walked off, with those bent legs making him lurch from side to side as he walked, and with those horns of his sticking out the top of his head. And when he opened that door, it din’t look like St. Louis out there. It looked like somewhere else. Somewhere full of fire,
I never saw Luther Davenport again after that, and nor did anyone else. Honky tonk music was going out of fashion anyway, and soon the only place I could get gigs playing my pedal steel was playing that Hawaiian shit, and I gave up altogether.
They say the Devil’s got all the best tunes, and maybe they’re right. But maybe, somewhere out there, there’s something worse than the Devil, and maybe that something has tunes that are even better. What would I know? I’m just an old German good ol’ boy. But I say my prayers a little louder these days, and I drink a little less, but I still don’t sleep much on Christmas night.
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