Sunday, March 8, 2009

Playlist: The legend of Stagger Lee

No American folktale has spread so thoroughly into so many music traditions as “Stagger Lee.”

Bluesmen, folksingers and rockers have sung about Stagger Lee. Pop stars, country singers and jazz vocalists have sung about Stagger Lee.

So who the hell was Stagger Lee?

According to legend, he was a badass nigger who shot a man to death over a Stetson hat. (How hip-hop is that?) His nickname is rendered in the folklore as Stack-o-Lee, Stagolee, Stackerlee, etc.

According to Wikipedia, the folktale is supposedly based on a real-life St. Louis murder case from 1895. Lee Shelton, a pimp, got into a drunken argument with Billy Lyons. Lyons snatched the hat off Shelton’s head and wouldn’t give it back. So Shelton shot him.

Follow this link and you can download a comic-book rendering of the story from the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis alternative weekly.

I’m streaming various audio versions of “Stagger Lee” on my Vox blog. Click the song titles below to listen. (If you happen to have a favorite version of “Stagger Lee,” let me know in the comments section. I’ll be glad to stream a few more.)

1. “Stack O’ Lee Blues” – Mississippi John Hurt

2. “Stagger Lee” – Woody Guthrie

3. “Stagger Lee” – Dr. John

4. “Stagger Lee and Billy” – Ike & Tina Turner

(For some reason, Ike & Tina flipped the script and had Billy Lyons whoopin’ Stagger Lee’s ass. Don’t make no sense, but... whatever.)

5. “Stagger Lee” – Taj Mahal

6. “Stagger Lee” – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds


27 comments:

Jeff said...

How about the Lloyd Price version? Or, The Clash's take on the tale, "Wrong 'Em Boyo?"

bklyn6 said...

^Yeah, Lloyd Price! I knew there was a version I was familiar with but I couldn't remember the singer.

There's a compilation of these types of songs called "Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs."

Undercover Black Man said...

The Lloyd Price version being the most famous one, I'll pass on posting that.

But for pointing out "Wrong 'Em Boyo," much thanks, Jeff.

newtoast said...

Stack Shot Billy by the Black Keys might be a worthy addition.

Anonymous said...

am i able to upload from your vox to my ipod?

Sam said...

Samuel L Jackson plays part of it in that movie Black Snake Moan.

Undercover Black Man said...

Well done, newtoast. Thanks, mate. I got to stream that one for myself...

Click here for the Black Keys' studio version of "Stack Shot Billy" (2004).

Undercover Black Man said...

am i able to upload from your vox to my ipod?

Sorry, anon. Just streaming.

phx said...

Lloyd Price did a censored and an uncensored version, by the way. Good post!

Wanda said...

Well look at me learning some St. Louis history from David. Thanks for the links!

Fred App said...

Southside Johnny released a double-live album about 25 years ago called "Reach Out and Touch the Sky" that had a kick-ass seven-minute version of "Stagger Lee." Unfortunately, I believe the song was left out when the double-LP was condensed to a single CD.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Cool, Fred.

Here’s a 9-minute version from Southside Johnny’s “Live! At the Paradise Theater, December 23, 1978.”

Bay Radical said...

I love your history posts and I love your playlist posts. Excellent combo!

(Also worth noting here that Bobby Seale named his son Stagolee. Fortunately for the son, its his middle name.)

Bay Radical said...

Oh, I forgot the link.

quirkychick said...

I love Wrong 'Em Boyo, but my favorite Stagger Lee will always be the one the Grateful Dead does where his wife Delia hunts Billy down and shoots him in the balls for killin' her man.

quirkychick said...

I meant she shot Stagger Lee for shootin' her Billy down.

Check out the show from March '93.

Goodness! Thanks for bringing up that memory.

Georgia's Angels said...

Great Post, I'm a lover of old music grew up with Lloyd Price & Stagger Lee. I was not aware of this legend behind the song. Do you know if there's a legend behind songs like Frankie & Johnny, Bad Bad Leroy Brown, Mack the knife, they all fit into what you described as Murder Ballards.

Undercover Black Man said...

Check out the show from March '93.

Thanks, quirkychick. Here it is.

Undercover Black Man said...

(Also worth noting here that Bobby Seale named his son Stagolee. Fortunately for the son, its his middle name.)

Thanks, Bay Radical. I didn't know that.

Always nice to hear from you.

Undercover Black Man said...

Well look at me learning some St. Louis history from David.

You're most welcome, Wanda. I hope you're doing well.

Dougfp said...

Since you're in New Orleans, may I suggest Professor Longhair's version? And Wilson Pickett did a pretty good "Stagger Lee" on one of his early albums.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Hey Doug. Here's Fess... BAM!

estiv said...

In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus has a brief excerpt from a talk by one of the better-known late-sixties black radicals (and I'm not being coy by not giving the name, I can't remember who it was and can't find my copy of the book -- Bobby Seale seems likely, since the story obviously meant something to him). It's a great little version of the story in itself, with details like a bar called the Bucket of Blood. Marcus ties it into his take on Sly Stone.

Davis said...

What about Archibald? (Good luck finding it)

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Here 'tis, Davis... POW!

thepopview said...

To be more precise, there's a whole chapter in Greil Marcus' 1975 classic Mystery Train about the legend of Stagger Lee, in which he runs through various versions of both the myth and the song. Highly recommended.

Jesse said...

the clash's is a cover of the Rulers rocksteady response.

Eric Bibb (son of Leon) kills it.