Friday, April 11, 2008


UPDATED: 6-18-20 Many broken video links fixed

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 11, 2008

From The Story of Staggerlee by Timothy Lane
A bulldog barks. Dice are thrown. Two men argue. Something about a hat. One of them begs for his life. A shot is fired.

It’s a murder that has been taking place virtually every night for more than a hundred years in the foggy backwaters of American song and mythology: Stagolee and Billy DeLyons, two men who gambled late.

And the song, in radically different forms, has found its way into at least three movies in the past year or so.

The tale of Stagolee, aka Stack O Lee, Stagger Lee, and who knows what other variants, is the story of a gambler, a pimp, and a killer who became an archetype — celebrated, reviled, and marveled at again and again by musicians from James Brown to Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan to Fred Waring & His Pennsylvanians. Some say Stagolee is the spirit at the root of all those great blaxploitation movies in the ’70s and the gangsta rap that later arose.

The real Stagolee. For years the identity of the man was shrouded in mystery. But in his 2003 book Stagolee Shot Billy, folklorist Cecil Brown cites 1895 newspaper accounts in St. Louis that tell of a Christmas-night killing in a bar in which Lee Shelton, aka Stack Lee, shot and killed William Lyons.

The saloon wasn’t the Bucket of Blood, as it’s identified in some of the Stag tunes. And there’s no evidence that any bullet went through Billy and broke the bartender’s glass, as many versions say. But the argument that preceded the shooting indeed involved Shelton damaging Lyons’ hat, followed by Lyons taking Shelton’s Stetson, a mistake that proved fatal.

Both Shelton and Lyons were pimps, Brown says. But there was more to them than that. Lyons was part of a family that was loyal to the Republican Party — as was the case for most blacks in St. Louis in 1895. But Shelton was a Democrat, part of a new generation that felt the GOP had sold out the black community. The fatal squabble, according to some witnesses, started as a political argument.

Shelton went to prison for Lyons’ murder. But despite what some songs say, he wasn’t executed for it. In fact, he was paroled in 1909, though two years later he was arrested again on charges of pistol-whipping and robbing another man. By this time Shelton was sick with tuberculosis. He died in a prison hospital in February 1912.

Stag, Stack, Stagger. The songs started popping up before Billy’s body was cold. In a chapter in The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad, Brown suggests that the original Stagolee ballad was written by a street singer named Bill Dooley, who also composed the first song based on another St. Louis murder that took place four years after Shelton killed Lyons — “Frankie and Albert,” later known as “Frankie and Johnny.”

Although perhaps hundreds of versions of “Stagolee” exist, Greil Marcus, in his 1976 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music, deals mainly with two — Mississippi John Hurt’s “Stack O’Lee Blues” from the late 1920s and Lloyd Price’s 1950s rock ’n’ roll hit “Stagger Lee.”

Hurt’s version takes a conservative view. He’s upset that police let the bad man run wild for so long and is happy when the killer is on the gallows. Price’s song, however, with its honking sax and giddy female chorus, seems to revel in the badness of the man in the Stetson. “Go Stagger Lee! Go Stagger Lee,” Price sings, at least in the version of the tune we all know and love.

According to Marcus, when Price appeared on American Bandstand, Dick Clark forced him to expunge all the references to gambling and murder. Price performed a bowdlerized version in which Stag and Billy argue over a girl but apologize to each other the next day. Price’s record company pulled the original and made Price record the Bandstand version (on which, Marcus argues, Price sounds even more impassioned). But the original, violent version is the one you still hear on oldies radio today.

Stag’s recent movie cameos: The song appeared late last year in Honeydripper in a version by contemporary blues singer Keb’ Mo’. I’ve never been a huge Keb’ Mo’ fan. I’ve always considered his music to be a little too touchy-feely — closer to Jackson Browne than Howlin’ Wolf. But nothing he ever did actually offended me until a few years ago. On a Johnny Cash tribute album, he altered the words to “Folsom Prison Blues,” changing “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” — one of the greatest lines in American music — to the bloodless, politically correct “They say I shot a man in Reno, but that was just a lie.”

No, Dick Clark didn’t get to Keb’. The singer explained at the time that he never could stomach the unrepentantly violent nature of the original lyrics. I say he should have been indicted on charges of desecrating a national monument.

Luckily Keb’, who plays a blind street singer named Possum in the movie, doesn’t sanitize his “Stack O Lee.” It’s an acoustic version with some nice slide guitar and harmonica.

More interesting, though, is the old soul-rock version by a forgotten band called Pacific Gas & Electric that was used in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof section of Grindhouse in 2007. In “Staggolee,” singer Charlie Allen has Stag die, go to hell, and conquer the devil. Beating the devil is a motif found in several old versions of the Stag saga. The idea can be traced back to Irish and British folk songs, such as “The Farmer’s Cursed Wife,” in which a nagging woman proves meaner than Satan.

A version by actor Samuel L. Jackson is the highlight of the soundtrack for 2007’s Black Snake Moan. Although he’s not a singer, Jackson provides the best of the recent Stag renditions.

His “Stack-O-Lee” is a first-person tale based on the late R.L. Burnside’s spoken-word version. Backed by Burnside’s longtime guitarist Kenny Brown and the bluesman’s grandson Cedrick Burnside on drums, Jackson brings the bad man back to life in full swagger and bile. As the spirit of Stagolee fully possesses Jackson in the performance, it’s clear Stag will never really die.

Check out: A Staggerific comic, The Story of Stagger Lee by Timothy Lane CLICK HERE.

And this week on Terrell’s Sound World, at 10 p.m. Sunday on KSFR-FM 101.1, don’t miss “Stagorama.” Hear the legend told by Nick Cave, The Clash, The Black Keys, and others.

UPDATE: A guy who commented on this column has a blog (She'll Grow Back) that posts a new version of Staggerlee every week. Check it out HERE

BONUS: Check out these cool Stagolee Videos:

Samuel L. Jackson

R.L. Burnside

Wilbert Harrison

Frank Hutchison

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Lloyd Price

For more deep dives into songs, check out The Stephen W. Terrell Web Log Songbook

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