Stagger Lee Is Everywhere

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Here’s a 2009 post from the archives that seems worth repeating. As usual, it has been edited a bit to update the hyperlinks and to eliminate some writerly tics from the past. 

“Stagger Lee” is one of the great American folk songs. It’s derived from the story of a man named Lee Shelton, a ghetto figure in St. Louis just before the turn of the 20th century. He was known as Stagger Lee, or Stagolee, or Stack-o-Lee, or something similar, and on Christmas Eve 1895, he murdered a man named Billy Lyons in a bar. According to author Cecil Brown, who wrote a book on the song and its history, Shelton was a well-known pimp in a rundown area of the city called Deep Morgan. Shelton and Lyons were drinking together amicably until an argument erupted and Lyons took Shelton’s hat. Shelton demanded it back, Lyons refused, Shelton pulled a .44, Lyons pulled a knife, and Shelton shot him dead. Shelton ended up in prison, dying there in 1912, age 41.

A murder ballad telling the story of Stagger Lee began circulating through the south and west in the early 20th century. Versions were cut as early as the 1920s, and Brown reports that there are over 120 blues and jazz versions of it. Folklorists John and Alan Lomax recorded it during their field expeditions in the 30s and 40s. It reached the pop market when Lloyd Price took his version to #1 in 1959. Since then, it’s been recorded by, well, everybody, including Bob Dylan, Bill Haley and the Comets, Wilson Pickett, Neil Diamond, Ike and Tina Turner, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Huey Lewis and the News, James Brown, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The Grateful Dead and the Clash are among the artists who have done variations on the original, although to talk in terms of variations doesn’t mean very much—as a folk song, “Stagger Lee” varies by definition. Each artist who tackles it tends to make it his or her own, although versions from Lloyd Price on down have usually focused on Stagger Lee and Billy as gamblers rather than murderer and victim.

Lee Shelton was said to be a powerful and charismatic man, tough and fearless. In some early versions of “Stagger Lee,” he does battle with the Devil himself. A figure of such rough independence is naturally attractive to young men who want to be like him. Author Greil Marcus suggests that the figure of Stagger Lee appears over and over in African-American culture. Brown quotes Marcus:

Stagolee was ‘Muddy Waters’s cool and elemental ‘Rollin’ Stone’; Chuck Berry’s ‘Brown-Eyed Handsome Man’; Bo Diddley with a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind; Wilson Pickett’s ‘Midnight Mover,’ Mick Jagger’s ‘Midnight Rambler’ . . . When the civil rights movement got tough, [Staggerlee] took over. And Staggerlee would come roaring back to the screen in the 1970s, as Slaughter, Sweet Sweetback, Superfly.’

Brown also links Stagger Lee to rap music and hip-hop style.

You almost certainly have a version or two of “Stagger Lee” in your music library. For example, Samuel L. Jackson performed it in the 2007 movie Black Snake Moan. Jackson’s version (which is extremely NSFW) focuses on the murderous part of the story. One version that focuses on the gambling tale is as far opposite of Jackson’s performance as it’s possible to get: the one by Tommy Roe, his last Top 40 hit, in the fall of 1971. I suspect that if Jackson’s character in Black Snake Moan ever heard it, he would likely want to pop a few motherfkin’ bullets into Roe for blasphemy, but anyone who digs the bubblegum like I do should be OK with it.

Listening to the two versions back to back is a vivid illustration of how malleable a folk song can be.

On Another Matter: I have written here over the years about a handful of albums I consider to be my all-time favorites, but I lack the work ethic to make anything like a definitive list. So I respect what Eric Berlin is doing at Pop Thruster: a “personal super biased, incredibly subjective take on what my best 1,000 albums are, ranked in painstaking order over the course of doing research for nearly a year, Rob from High Fidelity style.” You will agree with some choices and argue with others, which is really the point of such a project. Get started with the list here.

5 thoughts on “Stagger Lee Is Everywhere

  1. Wesley

    Thanks for sending me down another internet rabbit hole with one of your great links, jb. Although I must say that I’m more impressed by Berlin’s 1,000 albums picks so far than his 100 greatest TV shows of all time (a/k/a a Millennial’s take on the medium, with less than 15% of the picks being produced before 1990).

  2. A thousand albums is an awful lot; I’d be getting into Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Uriah Heep if I tried that exercise.
    (Although, now that I think of it, the entries for the bottom-feeders would probably be more interesting than the entries at the top.)

    My initial instinct was “oh, great, another list,” but I might have to spend some time with this. Clearly the guy’s putting some effort into it.

  3. porky

    I just listened to Fred Waring’s version, an instrumental (!) fox trot from 1923 and purportedly the first recorded version. It sounds like all fox trots from that era and nothing like the “Stagger Lee” we know today.

    I recently read “Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World” a very interesting read. The man continuously chased sound everywhere his entire life, with equipment that was dicey at best. This is when he was not trying to get funding and grants for his work. He lived hand-to-mouth for most of his life yet put aside enough money for a therapist, probably chalked up to living in the shadow of his father.

  4. Pingback: Fastbacks – Answer the Phone, Dummy: #475 of best 1,000 albums ever!

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