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.