1 - Press article from the St. Louis Globe newspaper from 1895;
2 - The song;
3 - Tourists note;
4 - Stagger Lee: A Historical Look at the Urban Legend;
5 - Bibliography.
The St. Louis Globe Democrat, 1895
"William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o'clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon's hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as 'Stag' Lee"
Billy Lyons died from his wounds, and Stag Lee was tried for this killing. The first trial ended in a hung jury amidst major political controversy. He was convicted in the second trial, served time, and died in the nineteen-teens.
This real-life incident soon became legendary in the South, and moved into song -- and down the river to New Orleans, where the killer's name became, variously, Stagolee, Stag-O-Lee, Stackolee or Stack-A-Lee. The latter was the spelling on a Top 10 R&B hit in 1950 performed in two parts by a New Orleans singer in the Professor Longhair style. Born Leon T. Gross, he was known professionally as Archibald (and sometimes as Archie Boy). His musical re-telling of the story might have been the end of the line chart-wise for old Stag, if it weren't for the Korean War. Fellow Crescent City native Lloyd Price had an auspicious start on the R&B charts, just two years after Archibald. He scored six Top 10 hits in one year, from 1952-53, but his success was cut short when he was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Korea. Lloyd wasted no time in forming a military band, and toured Korean and Japanese bases until his discharge in 1956. Part of his stage act involved the Lee and Billy story, as Lloyd recalled: "There were hundreds of lyrics for the old song, but no story. While entertaining the troops, I had put together a little play based on it. I'd have soldiers acting out the story while I sang it.". When he returned to civilian clothes, Lloyd resettled in Washington, D.C. There he joined with an old buddy named Harold Logan to form KRC Records, as a vehicle to re-launch Lloyd's recording career. His song "Just Because" immediately put him back in the Top 10 R&B, and crossed over to pop when the record was released on ABC-Paramount (as part of their buy-out of KRC). At this point, Lloyd became an ABC recording artist, and returned to his New Orleans roots with a re-write of his old Army skit, this time spelled "Stagger Lee". In Korea, Lloyd never thought the playlet could be a hit record, but it soon became a sensation, at one point selling nearly 200,000 copies a day -- and rapidly shot to #1 on the pop charts. But Dick Clark wasn't happy about it. Although Lloyd had appeared on "American Bandstand" and even Clark's Saturday night show with the original version, Dick decided to end the violence. The shooting and blood were too much for his teen TV audience. Lloyd had no choice -- he had to go back into the studio, and record a whole new, cleaned-up version of the story with -- believe it or not -- a happy ending! Stagger Lee and Billy actually make up and become friends again; too bad Billy Lyons wasn't really that lucky.
911 N. 12th Street, which was "Stag" Lee Sheldon's house, is still standing, although it was recently boarded up and for sale; it's the only house remaining on the block (directly across from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch building). About 15 years ago, an alderman named Bruce Sommer ran a restaurant there called the Sommer House -- with live music, including old-time performers Cousin Curtis & the Cash Rebates, and blues singer Tom Hall. Tom wasn't aware that he was singing in Stagger Lee's old house.
Stagger Lee: A Historical Look at the Urban Legend
by Tony Kullen MUS 199, March 9, 1997
Blues music is a form of African-American folk tradition. It traces it's roots to Africa and the Christian/Gospel influence of the slavery era. As with all forms of folk expression, it relies heavily on traditional myths. Certain characters come back again and again. Blues performers would either copy a previous version (though they would still probably claim authorship), rework the old story to suit their style, or add to it to put a new twist on the story. One such character who shows up all over blues tradition, and, from there, into blues recordings, R&B, rock and roll, and folk tales is Stagger Lee. Variously spelled Stack O'Lee, Stag O'Lee, Stack a Lee, Stackerlee, Skeeg O'Lee, and others, usually based on the producers attempt to phonetically spell the character's name,note 1 was always a bad man. Julius Lester, in his Black Folktales, said, "Stagolee as, undoubtedly and without question, the baddest nigger that ever lived. Stagolee was so bad that the flies wouldn't even fly around his head in the summertime, and snow wouldn't fall on his house in the winter." note 2 Though this seems like extreme hyperbole, it is actually falls right in line with the way most authors/lyricists described Stag. With such a bad character to write about, blues singers had little difficulty with giving Stag all sorts of characteristics. Like "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" for rock, Stagger Lee was a song which everyone in blues played. There are at least 63 documented recordings, and there are probably more, as well as countless unrecorded live versions. A list of recordings of Stagger Lee is like reading a who's who in blues, with such names as Jesse Fuller, Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Mississippi Slim, Ma Rainey, and others. With so many versions, tracing the history of Stag is somewhat difficult. Everyone seems to have an answer as to the origins of the tale, but most sources contradict each other.
To understand the background of the song, it is essential to know the "cast of characters" and the basic plot. Almost every version involves Stagger Lee killing Billy Lyons (or O'Lyons, Delyon etc.) Billy usually pleads for his life, by saying that he has a wife and kids to support. His children are never named, though his wife is named Delia in the Grateful Dead's version.
The history behind the characters' names is another issue of debate. One source for Stag's name has a direct link to the Mississippi River Delta. There was a family named Lee who ran the Lee Line boats on the Mississippi River. In David Dodd's annotation of Grateful Dead lyrics, he quotes Richard E. Buehler's article in Keystone Folklore Quarterly, who stated that, "'Many of the Lee Line boats were named for members of the Lee family, and one of them was Stacker Lee.'"note 3 . He goes on to discuss the historical evidence of such a boat, because it is the name of Edna Ferber's showboat in her book, Show Boat. The Stacker Lee for whom the boat was named was a former Confederate soldier, and it seems doubtful that he would be the bad man immortalized in song. One source thought the true bad man of folklore was actually the illegitimate son of this man.note 4. If the river boat is the true source, it is more likely that the inspiration was through seeing the boat's name by dock hands or those on shore seeing it pass. Many blues songs used the railroad names that the singer would see on the sides of boxcars to invoke certain images, so the river boat's could have served the same purpose.
Though the river boat's name may have been the source of the myth or at least the character's name, there is historical evidence of a man whose name and deeds resemble those of the character in the songs. On December 28, 1895, the St. Louis Globe Democrat contained an article on the murder of William Lyons. He was shot in the abdomen by Lee Sheldon in a saloon owned by Bill Curtis. They were said to be friends, until a political argument ensued and they became upset with each other. Lyons took Sheldon's hat and refused to give it back, so Sheldon shot Lyons with his revolver. At the end of the article, it is mentioned that, "Sheldon is also known as 'Stag' Lee."note 5. This certainly seems to be a potential source for the myth, since the two main characters are both involved. Besides the characters, some of the myth is present as well. Every tale of Stagger Lee portrays him as being a cold-hearted killer, and this is rooted in history as well. The article says that, "when his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away."note 6. This is the end of the history behind the myth. The real Lee Sheldon was promptly arrested. He was tried twice; the first trial ended in a hung jury, and in the second, he was convicted. He served time, and died in the nineteen tens. This last part diverges from the myth. The police are usually scared to go after Stag, and, when they do arrest him, he is promptly hung. Though this newspaper article is certainly historically accurate, it is contradicted in Lawrence Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness, when he says that, "Charles Hatter of Coahoma County, Mississippi, remembered first singing of Stagolee's exploits in 1895, while Will Starks, also a resident of the Mississippi Delta, initially heard the Stagolee saga in 1897 from a man who had learned it in the labor camps of St. Louis."note 7. Though these seem to coincide with the historical character, they are probably more fanciful memory or an attempt at claiming original authorship than of strict historical accuracy. If they are trusted, they may suggest that Lee Sheldon knew of the tale, and adopted the nickname "Stag" to instill a sense of fear in those he was dealing with, though there is no evidence to support this theory. The songs do add evidence to the argument against the Lee Line boat though, because they predate her commissioning by ten and eight years, respectively.
Mississippi John Hurt's version of Stack O' Lee Blues is considered a definitive version of the song, perhaps because it is simply so well known or because it contains most of the elements included in the later versions. Though his version is more a ballad than a blues, as stated in the liner notes concerning it in the Smithsonian release The Blues, it does follow certain blues constructions. It is based on a twelve bar progression and follows an a-b-c line structure in the verses, with the c line always the same line of, "That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee." Hurt was a blues singer, though a lot of his influence came from the songster tradition, and he showed this in his various ballads concerning folk characters like Stag and John Henry. Hurt's version adds two important elements to the historical events. One, he specifies the hat as being a Stetson. The Stetson hat certainly invokes images of the lawless old west, and adds to Stag's personality. Most later versions also specify that the hat is a Stetson. Another addition to the myth is the fear of Stag by the police, which is introduced to tradition through Hurt's version. He opens his version with, "Police officer, how can it be? / You can 'rest everybody but cruel Stack O' Lee." Most later versions also have the police afraid to arrest Stag because they fear him so.
As with many other blues songs, Stagger Lee eventually made it to R&B and rock and roll. The earliest version of Stagger Lee as neither a blues nor a white folk song, and an obvious bridge to the later rock versions, was Lloyd Price's version, which was a hit in 1959. In it, he has Stag and Billy gambling in the dark. The fatal argument ensues over an argument about Stag's roll of the dice. Stag threw a seven, and Billy swore that his roll was an eight. Stag gets upset because Billy won his money and, perhaps more importantly, his Stetson hat. Stag goes home and gets his .44. He goes to a bar, and finding Billy there, shoots him from across the bar.
In the 1960s, blues performers finally got their moment at the forefront of popular music. As folk/acoustic music became popular, a search began for the old folk performers. Blues was seen (appropriately so) as an expression of folk tradition, and many of the blues greats were brought out to perform for folk and blues festivals around the country. Among these performers whose careers were resurrected was Mississippi John Hurt. Though the song "Stagger Lee" never really fell from recording popularity, after the blues revival of the mid 60's and the success of Price's version, there was a definite resurgence in its popularity. The Grateful Dead, active members of the 60's folk scene and frequent performers and reworkers of folk and blues songs, were one of the most popular groups to retell the story of cruel Stag. Robert Hunter, the folk performer, poet, and frequent lyricist for the Grateful Dead, penned a version of the folk tale for their 1978 record, Shakedown Street. As he did for the folk tale of Casey Jones ten years earlier, Hunter retold a classic story, though he replaced some of the rough blues edge with his poetic beauty. His version is based on traditional elements of the story, though the words within the lines themselves are reworked so they express Hunter's style of storytelling. The characters are Stagger Lee, Billy DeLyon, Delia DeLyon (Billy's wife,) and Baio, the police officer. Hunter's version, originally penned as "Delia DeLyon and Staggerlee," begins with the line, "1940, Xmas eve, with a full moon over town." This line has three very significant elements, which each trace to different sources: one is the first word, 1940; it places the events well ahead of their historical occurrence, if we trust the St. Louis newspaper of 1895 as the source of the tale. However, the next two words do suggest the historical events. The murder in St. Louis took place on the evening of December 27. This is too close to the day on which Hunter places the events to be simply coincidence. The third element of this introductory line, the "full moon over town," is similar to Lloyd Price's version, where his version introduces the events by saying, "The night was clear and the moon was yellow." As Hunter's version progresses, we hear very little new material. Billy DeLyon rolled "lucky dice / won Stagger Lee's Stetson hat." Baio, the police officer, is scared to arrest Stagger Lee. He fears Stag and his gun, which, in this version, is a .45. One new element to the story is the character of Delia, though previous versions make references to her, usually when Billy begs for his life. In Hunter's version, Billy never has a chance to beg for his life, but his wife gets involved after his death. She wants Stag brought to justice, and, when Baio is afraid to do it, she demands a gun and goes to get him herself. She goes to the bar (in this case it is called DeLyon's Club) and asks Stag to buy her a drink. "As Stagger Lee lit a cigarette, she shot him in the balls." She then has him dragged to city hall, where she has Baio hang him. Though Hunter's story borrows from blues tradition, he closes the song with an acknowledgment of this tradition. He freely admits that his story isn't new:
Hunter places the song in a time many years after the events traditionally are said to have occured, but he makes up for this by stating that this is not a retelling of the same old story, but a new one, in which Delia sings one of the earlier versions (though not literally, since there is no evidence of a song by the title "Look out Staggerlee".)
Though Stagger Lee is primarily a character of song, he returns in other forms of African-American artistic expression. Julius Lester's compilation Black Folktales includes a telling of the Stagolee story. His version is a short story which is, by far, the "baddest" version of the story. Not only does Stag kill Billy, Stag tells him that, after Billy is dead, he's going to move in with Billy's wife. With this, he refutes Billy's traditional plea for his life, which was that he had a wife and kids to support. Stag then kills the police officer who tries to arrest him. The police finally think they can get him when he's drunk and passed out one night. They slip a rope around his neck and this wakes him up. He agrees to go downtown with them, but, when they try to hang him, his neck just won't break. He sits there on the noose for half an hour until he starts complaining that the rope tickles. They let him down and set him free. He then goes on to perform various exploits, including standing off against Death, by saying that he is not strong enough to kill Stag. When Stag finally does die, he obviously goes straight to hell. Once there, he starts the cycle all over. He begins terrorizing hell, to the point where he claims he's going to run the devil out of hell and take the place over for himself.note 8.
Stagger Lee was a member of the urban blues tradition. Though many
of the versions of his tale were done by rural performs, the story is
still of an urban man who comes from the bottom of black society.
"Like the protagonists of 'Frankie Baker' and 'DuPree and Betty
Blues,' Stackolee comes out of an urban scene-a world of pimps,
prostitutes, gambling, drinking, fighting, and death. He is as far
removed from the barnyard and the fields as John Henry is from the
plough and the scythe." 9 Though Stag was an urban
creature (the historical "Stag" Lee Sheldon lived in St. Louis,) his
myth and legend certainly spread both throughout the whole country
and through the various contemporary and later forms of popular
music. Though it seems like a rough story which would usually scare
some performers away, many performers do it simply because it is an
accepted form. People don't overreact to his violence as they do in
other songs because it has so much history and tradition. Also, most
performers show interest in Stag but don't really defend his actions.
The only person to ever openly promote Stag was Bobby Seale, a Black
Panther and not a singer or performer. He "named his son after
Stagger Lee, who he said was a positive role model for black men."
10 Though I question this assertion, it certainly does
seem to add just another layer to the vast history of Stag's story.
He is a mysterious character, but this mystery is what attracts
people to him. There is just enough known about him that someone can
tell his story without having to teach the audience the story before
expanding on it. Also, though some versions are more popular than
others, no single version is considered to be the real version. Each
is simply a different version. This leaves open the opportunity for
another writer to expand on the myth and add a little more to the
overall saga. Each new version does seem to augment the vast
tradition behind Stagger Lee. It still seems a little odd, though,
that one of America's greatest forms of folk expression should stem
from a gambler's fight. I wonder if those men knew that there actions
would cause us, a hundred years later, to "know" more about them
perhaps than they knew about themselves.
1 Davis, Francis, The History of the Blues (New York: Hyperion, 1995) 40. BACK to text
2 Lester, Julius, Black Folktales (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1969) 113. BACK to text
3 Buehler, Richard E., "Stacker Lee: a Partial Investigation into the Historicity of a Negro Murder Ballad," Keystone Folklore Quarterly Fall 1967: 187-191. (as quoted in Dodd, David The Annotated "Stagger Lee" , online, U of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Available: http://www.uccs.edu/~ddodd/stagger.html. BACK to text
4 Davis 40. BACK to text
5 Stamler, Paul J., e-mail to Tony Kullen, February 26, 1997. BACK to text
6 Ibid. BACK to text
7 Levine, Lawrence W, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977) 413. BACK to text
8 Lester 113-135. 9Baker, Houston A. Jr,
Long Black Song (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1972)
37-38. 10 "Results and Answer Key for Golden Oldies Lyrics Quiz #34,"
Baker, Houston A. Jr. Long Black Song .Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1972.
Buehler, Richard E. "Stacker Lee: a Partial Investigation into the Historicity of a Negro Murder Ballad," Keystone Folklore Quarterly . Fall 1967. (as quoted in Dodd, David The Annotated "Stagger Lee" , online, U of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Available: http://www.uccs.edu/~ddodd/stagger.html
Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues. New York: Hyperion, 1995.
Hunter, Robert. A Box of Rain. New York: Viking, 1990.
Lester, Julius. Black Folktales. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1969.
Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
"Results and Answer Key for Golden Oldies Lyrics Quiz #34,"
http://bobcat.bbn.com/bobcatftp/pub/golq/answers/ans034 Stamler, Paul
J. e-mail to Tony Kullen, February 26, 1997.