A legend in the blues and folk tradition, about a desperado name Stagolee, or Stack O' Lee, or Stagger Lee, or god only knows how many other variants. It might be possible to trace the man down to an event recorded in the St. Louis Globe Democrat newspaper in 1895: a man named Sheldon 'Stag' Lee was involved in a political argument with his friend, William Lyons. Lyons grabbed Lee's hat from his head, and refused to give it back; Lee drew his revolver, shot him, and walked away. Lyons later died from his wounds. Lee was tried twice; the first trial ended in a hung jury, the second convicted him, and he probably later died in prison.

The event (or something like it) soon moved into the folk tradition. Versions exist by Big Bill Broonzy, Mississippi John Hurt, and even the Grateful Dead. The lyrics and events vary, but all have a few things in common. Stag O' Lee usually gets into an argument with Billy Lyons, and Lyons steals his hat; Lyons usually ends up pleading for his life, telling Stag O' Lee he's got a wife and children, but Stag shoots him anyway. Usually, there's talk about the law being so afraid of Stag O' Lee, they won't arrest him.

This is Mississippi John Hurt's version:
Spoken:Stagolee was a bad man. Ah...they goes down in the coal mine one night, robbed a coal mine. They's gamblin' down there, and they placed themselves just like they wanted to be, so they wouldn't hit each other when they was shootin'. Money lyin' all over the floor. There's one bad guy down there, he thought he was, that was Billy Lyons. So he had a big .44 laying down by the side of him; when they got placed why, Stagolee spoke to him, he says, boys, look at the money lyin' there on the floor. What'll we do if old Stagolee and them was to walk up in here? This guy picked up his .44, and he says: It wouldn't make a bit of difference, says, Stag's gun won't shoot a bit harder than this one. 'bout that time, stag knocked his hat off. and his partner, takin' care of the rest, when he knocked his hat off, he kinda remembered that was Stagolee, and he commenced beggin' like this:

Police officer, how can it be,
you can arrest everybody but cruel stagolee?
that bad man, oh cruel stagolee.

Stagolee, stagolee, please don't take my life
says i got two little baby and a darling lovin' wife
he's a bad man, oh cruel Stagolee.

Here' the answer Stagolee gave him:

What do i care 'bout your two little babies, darling loving wife?
says you done stole my stetson hat, i'm bound to take your life.
it's a magic hat, oh cruel Stagolee.

Boom boom, boom boom, went the .44
when i spied poor Billy Lyons,
he was lyin' down on the floor.
that bad man, oh cruel Stagolee

Gentlemen of the jury, what do you think of that?
Stagolee killed Billy Lyons, 'bout a $5 stetson hat
that bad man, oh cruel Stagolee

Standin' on the gallows, Stagolee did curse
the judge said let's kill him, before he kills one of us
he's a bad man, that old Stagolee.

Standin' on the gallows, his head was way up high
at 12:00 they killed him, they was all glad to see him die.
that bad man, oh cruel Stagolee

Policin' officer, how can it be
you can arrest everybody but cruel stagolee
that bad man, oh cruel stagolee.

Post Scriptum, 7th January, 2005: In retrospect, the most amazing thing to me about this song is that Stagger's Stetson only cost $5. Go figure.

Post post scriptum 7th July, 2008: ebbix kindly reminds me that $5 in 1895 would be worth about a gazillion dollars today, given inflation. Stagger Lee was right to shoot the bastard.

There are a number of tunes entitled "Stagger Lee" which have been recorded over the years. They all derive from a series of tales and songs in African-American folklore. See Tony Kullen's essay, Stagger Lee: A Historical Look at the Urban Legend for a detailed look at the topic.

Blair Jackson, in his magazine "Golden Road" said this about "Stagger Lee":

""Stagger Lee," who pops on the Shakedown album is a fabled character who some suggest dates back to the Civil War. Variously called "Stag-O-Lee," "Stack-O-Lee," and other names, the song is about a scoundrel who killed Billy Lyons because he stole Stag's Stetson hat. Stag-O-Lee was upset about the death, though--because he failed to shoot Billy right between the eyes. Songwriters over the years have elaborated on the story, bringing in the bad man's deals with the devil, etc. It's been recorded often, by everyone from Mississippi John Hurt (his 1928 version is one of the first on record) to Professor Longhair and Doc and Merle Watson."

Here's a partial list of other "Stagger Lee"'s, in alphabetical order by performer:

Archibald: Imperial X5358.
Bechet, Sidney: "Old Stack O'Lee Blues" on The best of Sidney Bechet (Blue Note, CDP 7243 8 28891 2 0, 1994)
Bookbinder, Roy: "Stack O Lee" on Ragtime millionaire (Yellow Bee Productions, 5BG-2023, 1977)
Brozman, Bob: "Stack o Lee Aloha" on A truckload of blues (Rounder, CD 3119, 1992)
Calloway, Cab: "Stack O' Lee Blues" on Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, 1931-1932 (Classics 526, 1990)
Clayton, Paul: Bloody Ballads. Riverside RLP 12-615. Dodds, Johnny: "Stack O'Lee Blues" on side B of "Melancholy" (Decca, 1676, 1938)
Domino, Fats: "Stack & Billy" on Let's play (Imperial, LP-9065, 196?)
Dylan, Bob: "Stack a Lee" on World gone wrong (Columbia, CK 57590, 1993)
Edwards, Cliff: "Stack O' Lee, Part 1" and "Stack O' Lee, Part 2" (ca. 1924) on I'm a bear in a lady's boudoir (Yazoo, L-1047, 1975)
English, Logan: Riverside 12-643.
Fuller, Jesse: "Stagolee" on Jazz, Folk Songs, Spirituals and Blues (Original Blues Classics, 2530 564 2, 1958)
The Green Mountain Boys: "Stagolee" on The Green Mountain Boys (Green Mountain Records, GMS 1053, 197?)
Guthrie, Woody: "Stagolee" on Bound For Glory (Smithsonian/Folkways Records, 02481, 1992, originally recorded 1956)
Houston, Cisco: "Stagolee" on Hard traveling (Folkways, FA 2042, 1954)
Hull, Papa Harvey, Long "Cleve" Reed, and the Down Home Boys: "Original Stack O'Lee Blues" (ca. 1927) on The Songster tradition: complete recorded works in chronological order (1927-1935) (Document Records, DOCD-5045, 1991)
Hurt, Mississippi John: "Stack O' Lee Blues" on 1928 sessions (Yazoo, 1065, 1990)
Hutchinson, Frank: on American Folk Music, vol. 1: Ballads. (Folkways, FP 251, 1927)
Johnson, Tex: "Stack o Lee" on Gunfighter ballads (Promenade, 2239, 1961)
Lester, Julius: "Stagolee" on Julius Lester accompanying himself on the guitar (Vanguard, VRS-9199, 1965)
Lewis, Furry: "Billy Lyons and Stack O'Lee" on Furry Lewis (1927-1929): complete recorded works in chronological order (Document Records, DOCD-5004, 1990) Recording also includes "Kassie Jones part 1 and 2.
Lomax, Alan (compiler): "Stackerlee," by an unknown performer on Negro prison songs from the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Tradition, TLP 1020, 195?) "Recorded by Alan Lomax in 1947 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Mississippi"
Lomax, Alan: Listen to Our Story. BR-1024.
McCurdy, Ed: Elektra 108.
Memphis Slim: "Stack Alee" on Broken soul blues (United Artists, UAL3137, 1961)
New Lost City Ramblers: "Stackerlee" on The New Lost City Ramblers (Folkways Records, FA 2399, 1962)
Noble, Ray: "Stack O' Lee" (ca. 1935) on Ray Noble and his American Dance Orchestra (Jazz Archives, JA-22, 1975)
Paley, Tom: "Stackerlee" on Old Tom Moore and more (Global Village, C 309, 1991)
Price, Lloyd: "Stagger Lee" by Harold Logan and Lloyd Price (based on traditional material) (1958)
Rainey, Ma: "Stack O'Lee Blues" on Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and onThe complete Madam Gertrude "Ma" Rainey mastertakes' collection, 1923/28 (King Jazz, KJ-182 FS, 1994)
Senter, Boyd: "Original Stack O'Lee Blues" on Solos and Senterpedes: 1927-1928 (Harlequin, HQ 2044, 1986)
Sol Hoopii's Novelty Trio: "Stack O'Lee Blues" on B side of "Farewell Blues" (Columbia, 797-D, 1926)
Stuart, Alice: "Stackerlee" on All the good times (Arhoolie, F 4002, 1964)
Travis, Merle: "Stack O'Lee" on Rough, Rowdy and Blue CMH, CMH-C-6262, 1986)
Turner, Titus: "Return of Stagolee" (King, 45-5186, 1957?) The Washingtonians (a pseudonym for Duke Ellington and his Orchestra): "Stack O'Lee Blues" on b side of "Red head blues" (Velvet Tone, 1601-V, 1927)
Watson, Doc: "Stack O'Lee" on Ballads from Deep Gap (Vanguard, VMD-6576, 1988)
Wheeler, Mary (compiler): "Stacker Lee" (Bertha Wenzel, Singer; Bill Small, guitar) on Folk songs of the river (Century Custom Recording Service, 20074, ca. 1982)

Thanks to the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics for the list of artists who've performed Stagger Lee.
"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"

The St. Louis Globe Democrat, 1895

taken from : http://blueslyrics.tripod.com/dictionary/stagolee.htm, which also containd a copy of the essay 'Stagger Lee: A Historical Look at the Urban Legend'

Additional information on the Nick Cave song "Stagger Lee":

"'I'm a bad motherfucker, don't you know
And I'll crawl over fifty good pussies just to get one fat boy's asshole'
Said Stagger Lee'"

The "fifty good pussies" line is evidently taken from a 1969 blues song "Two Time Slim" by a rather unknown group called Snatch and the Poontangs. It is available on a german label now, on a compilation called "If It Ain't a Hit I'll Eat My.... Baby". No, I'm not kidding.

Another verse for this song exists as well, performed only during live renditions. It details the devil appearing to Stagger Lee after Billy gets eh, blown away. Stagger Lee kills the devil.

(If anyone has the lyrics, I would be appreciative if you'd send them to me or post them.)

I personally enjoyed this song and this album ("Murder Ballads") a great deal, once I figured out it wasn't anything you could dismiss at face value. I read someone once (half-jokingly, perhaps--anyone who knows what Nick Cave sounds like will know why) guess that this was Nick Cave's take on gangster rap. It wasn't until a few months ago that I myself decided to explore the genre (which I had been forced away from by annoyance at MTV), to find that this is oddly a very accurate thing to say. It's a song about killing for the sake of killing--lashing out violently and senselessly. There's something beautiful about that, or at least something picturesque and emotional, you might admit. Not beautiful because one approves, but because it's something in its purest and most natural form, like the modern all-purpose example of the bag from American Beauty. Maybe the Three Six Mafia wouldn't know that what they're doing might have some artistic value, or at least interest, but I'm certainly inclined to believe it does. But I might not've seen it without songs like Stagger Lee.

The extra verse to Nick Cave's "Stagger Lee" go as follows:

"In come the devil,

Said, "I've come to take you down,

Mr. Stagger Lee,"

Well those were the last words that the Devil said,

'Cause Stag put four holes in his motherfucking head!"


Incidentally, after hearing this song (and looking for other versions of 'Stagger Lee' by other artists, back story and all), I've come to use the 'stagger' as a unit of measurement for badassitude. Basically, one stagger equals the amount of badassitude it would take to kill a man over a $5 hat (or, in Mr. Cave's telling of the story, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time).

The Stagger Lee takes the usual metric prefixes: millistagger (blue-haired old ladies and newborn ducklings), centistagger (people who listen to easy jazz and drink decaf), decistagger (most people), decastagger (Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen), and so on.

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