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