A year or so ago my girlfriend Sarah asked me to ‘acquire’ some songs for her with the aid of the internet. One of these songs was ‘Stagger Lee’ by Lloyd Price (mp3). When I heard the song I liked it a lot, but I was immediately struck by how the violent imagery of the lyrics contrasted the cheery uptempo music behind it (And I wasn’t even a liberal arts major!).

A few months later, while watching the movie ‘Shag,’ Lloyd Price’s version of Stagger Lee began to play during the climactic dance scene. At first I was surprised that such a violent song would be used in such a squeaky clean 50’s dance scene, but once the first verse was underway, it became apparent that the song had been altered – the backing track was identical and it was obviously Lloyd Price singing, but the lyrics described a completely different interaction between Stagger Lee and Billy. I’ve posted the two variations on the lyrics below:

Original:

The night was clear

and the moon was yellow

And the leaves came

tumbling down

I was standing on the corner

when I heard my bulldog bark

He was barkin’ at the two men

who were gamblin’ in the dark

It was Stagger Lee and Billy,

two men who gambled late

Stagger Lee threw seven,

Billy swore that he threw eight

Stagger Lee told Billy,

“I can’t let you go with that”

“You have won all my money

and my brand new stetson hat”

Stagger Lee started off

goin’ down that railroad track

He said “I can’t get you Billy

but don’t be here when I come back”

Stagger Lee went home

and he got his forty-four

Said “I’m goin’ to the barroom

just to pay that debt I owe”

Stagger Lee went to the barroom

and he stood across the barroom door

He said “Nobody move”

and he pulled his forty-four

Stagger Lee shot Billy,

oh he shot that poor boy so bad

Till the bullet came through Billy

and it broke the bartender’s glass

‘Clean:’

The night was clear

and the moon was yellow

And the leaves came

tumbling down

I was standin’ on the corner

When I heard my bulldog bark

He was barking at the two men

who were arguing in the dark.

It was Stagger Lee and Billy

Billy took ol stacker’s date

he said ya did me wrong billy

and that’s one thing that I hate.

Stagger lee told billy

I can’t let you go with that

Because I loaned you my money

and my girl I want her back.

Stager Lee went home

and he fell down on the floor

He said billy did me wrong and

I don’t wanna see him no more

ol billy felt bad

’cause he hurt his poor friend stag

I’m gonna give him his girlfriend

and everything that I have

Stagger Lee and Billy

never fussed or fight no more

because he got back his girlfriend and

stagger lee was no more sore

     As is my habit, I made note of this and then promptly forgot about it. A few months later, I accidentally found a copy of ‘Stagolee Shot Billy,’ by
Cecil Brown at the Ann Arbor District Library, and was reminded of the song, so I checked it out.

stagolee shot billy

     I ended up really enjoying the book – it combines painstakingly researched musical history with a great examination of the power of a single song, and it opened my eyes to the fact that ‘Stagger Lee’ has been recorded in hundreds of different variations, under dozens of different titles (Most based on different spellings: Stagger Lee / Stagolee / Stag Lee / Stackalee / etc). The most interesting aspect of the book is the research Brown has done into the origins of the song, isolating the exact incident that the song is based on – Billy Lyons’ death at the hands of Lee Shelton, after an altercation involving Shelton’s white Stetson hat on December 26th, 1895. The first half of the book examines the past and ultimate fate of the major players in the infamous murder – Lee Shelton, Billy Lyons, and the friends and family tangentially involved in the story. Brown contextualizes the events with excerpts from courtroom records and newspaper articles of the day, and examines the permutations of specific facts and non-facts that made their way into different early versions of the song.

     I spent some time collecting versions of the song on soulseek, and reviewing an overflowing iTunes playlist reveals a wide range of variation in interpretations by an impressive array of artists both classic and contemporary, including the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, Duke Ellington, Beck, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Woody Guthrie, the Grateful Dead, Fats Domino, the Clash, and hundreds of others. The second half of Brown’s book traces the evolution of Stagolee in song – recollections of those alive in St. Louis during the period in question support a theory that the song was born when one of Lee Shelton’s associates, a ragtime pianist named Tom Turpin, infused the facts of his friend’s altercation into a popular song of the day – variously known as “Looking for the bully” and “The Bully of the town.” From there, Brown examines the intracacies of the many mutations of the song – after the murder, plotlines diverge in hundreds of directions, ranging from Stagger Lee’s untimely demise (In a version popular while Lee Shelton was alive and out of prison), to the version in which Billy Lyons’ son is instructed to kill Lee in vengeance, most recently popularized by the Grateful Dead. Some versions of the song are pretty ribald – for an easy to find example, see Nick Cave’s version, available on his ‘Murder Ballads‘ album – the amazon folks did well to find a 30 second stretch with no obscenity (Note that these lyrics aren’t Nick’s innovations, this was just the most readily available example).

     Brown also spends a lot of time examining the reflection of the black community in the song’s changes over time and what these changes represent – extrapolating his observations into present-day popular culture. It was apparently this bit that rubbed the reviewer for the New York Times the wrong way, as the published review takes a bizarre, aggressive stance against the book, defending the modern hip-hop community from any comparison to the violence and status symbolism portrayed in ‘Stagolee Shot Billy.’ Reviewer Todd Boyd argues: “if Stagolee is this important, why is it that no one born after the assassination of Malcolm X, much less someone born into the hip-hop generation, has much knowledge of this supposedly transcendent archetype?” Boyd’s question is rather effectively rebutted in this thread on the message boards at hiphopmusic.com:

     “If you look–and ask–closely, most people born after Malcom X’s death
don’t know about a LOT of things.”

     While poking around on the web for links regarding the song, I found the answer to my original question in Price’s Allmusic bio: the origin of the ‘Clean’ version of ‘Stagger Lee:’

     “Stagger Lee,” Price’s adaptation of the old Crescent City lament
“Stack-A-Lee,” topped both the R&B and pop lists in 1958. By now, his
sound was taking on more of a cosmopolitan bent, with massive horn
sections and prominent pop background singers. Dick Clark insisted on
toning down the violence inherent to the song’s story line for the
squeaky-clean American Bandstand audience, accounting for the two
different versions of the song you’re likely to encounter on various
reissues.”

Related Links:

  • A good essay on the topic, in annoying blue type: Stagger Lee: A Historical Look at the Urban Legend
  • There’s an entire geocities site dedicated to the Stagger Lee ouvre here.
  • Other good discussions here, here and here.
  • Cecil Brown attributes the ‘stag’ of ‘stagolee to slang – Lee Shelton was apparently a pimp of sorts. The house which he operated this business in is still standing, and there’s an epinions article on it here.
  • An epic listing of known Stagolee recordings is kept here. There are 206 listed so far.
  • Lyrics to other versions of the Stagolee song are here, here and here.
  • If you’re into the idea of an entire book focused on the intracacies and nuances of a single song, a similar title is Dave Marsh’s ‘Louie Louie,’ which covers the origins of the song of the same name and the FBI investigations that surrounded it.