Monday, October 25, 2010

Antique St Louis folklore and ghosts from the research of Devil At The Confluence.

The early blues music of America was primarily a folk music in that it was musical folklore. In the book Devil At The Confluence the stories and places behind the songs from St Louis are revealed. But not all stories had surviving songs for them and so for this week of Halloween this blog will publish a series of the folklore stories from the leftover research of the book.

The blues were called the Devil's music mainly by the folks who didn't like the music. And that made the folks who played it, enjoy it even more - knowing it was bothersome to the older generation or to the people who felt that it was beneath them. In St Louis, the taboo themes of ghosts, violence, death and other subjects were sometimes the subjects for songs.

These first posts are not songs but are St Louis legends concerning graveyards.


This story can only be qualified as trivia even though it concerns one of the biggest names in pre-rock and roll music. It was not included in the book because Louis Jordan is not a St Louisan and his career was after World War II, but it is a fact that his grave is in St Louis.

Louis Jordan was born in Arkansas in 1908.  He was married five times and his fifth wife, Martha, was a showgirl from St Louis who he had met in New York when she was performing at a club there. Louis had performed in St Louis many times and was friends with many of the local musicians. In 1966 Louis and Martha were married and lived at his home in Los Angeles. He died in 1975, and his body was brought to St Louis to be buried in Martha's family grave in the county.

The quiet graveyard is outside of the city limits, marked with a nameless stone and fulfills Louis' promise made in 1941:
"I'm gonna move way out on the outskirts of town. I don't want nobody, oooh, always hangin' around."


In his research of folklore of St Louis, Judge Nathan Young recorded the unwritten tale of Staggerlee who had traded his soul to the Devil in exchange for gambling luck. It happened very late one night when a young man named Lee Shelton walked past the old graveyard at Grand and Laclede Avenue. He had lost all of his money in a crap game and was disappointed with his life of bad luck.

Approaching the cemetery gate, a voice from out of the darkness asked, "What's your touble?"
Startled but not frightened, Staggerlee looked up at the figure of a man in a stetson hat just inside of the graveyard. The hat was very expensive looking and Staggerlee assumed the man to be wealthy. Stag was a natural born gambler and a hustler and was always looking for an easy mark. "I've got one more silver dollar left and I was looking for a game. I'm on a losing streak so if you have some dice this may be your lucky night.
"Perhaps." The dark shadow replied, "Or it could be a very lucky night for you."

The figure in the graveyard was the Devil of course, and the game turned out to be the legendary Faustian bargain for Staggerlee's soul. Ironically, the site where folklore says that Staggerlee surrendered his mortal soul and his moral integrity in exchange for unlimited good luck and worldly pleasures is now the property of St Louis University.

There were no notes from Mr Young's research, but the corner in the early 1900s was a ballpark for the St Louis Terriers baseball team. It seemed far-fetched that there was ever a graveyard there, but records exist showing that in the mid-1800s the ground had been a small German Methodist cemetery.

Devil At The Confluence is available from all the better St Louis bookstores and the Missouri History Museum as well as BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups.

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