Strictly speaking, a legend is defined as, “a story coming down from the past, especially one popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable.” The story of Stagger Lee is verifiable. But the reality has become mythologized …
In early 1959, a song by Lloyd Price called “Stagger Lee” reached the top of the charts. The lyric goes like this:
Oh please don’t take my life
I’ve got three little children
And a very
Stagger Lee shot Billy
Oh, he shot that poor boy so bad
Till the bullet came through Billy
And it broke the
The song is fairly upbeat and for years I thought of it as another “done somebody wrong” song. Which it is. However, it is neither myth nor legend but is in fact based on a true story:
In December of 1895, in St. Louis, a guy named Lee Shelton – variously known as Stagger Lee, Stag Lee, Stack O’ Lee – shot a man named William Lyons, 25, over a Stetson hat. (He may have gotten his nickname from a riverboat called the Stack Lee, which had on-board prostitution.)
According to a newspaper article, “Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together.” (According to Wikipedia, Stagger Lee was a well-known pimp.)
The discussion drifted to politics (they were apparently both local organizers) 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 drew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen.
Now there are many, many versions (over 400) of this song. (The Price version invents a gambling dispute.) So how did this story become folklore?
According to an article called, “Exploring and Decoding the Legend of the Black Badman Known as Stagger Lee,” in the Lloyd Price version, the backup singers sing “Go, Stagger Lee.” But in a later Huey Lewis version, they sing “Whoa! Stagger Lee.”
So the thing you should know is that both Billy and Stagger Lee were black. Lloyd Price was black, Huey Lewis is white. Why significant? According to the article, “Stagger Lee was a symbol of resistance and freedom to African-Americans. This was because, while southern blacks had to abide by the twisted laws and customs which created segregation and the Jim Crow system, Stagger Lee defied white authority and was so “bad” that he could get away with it.
He was an admired figure whose legend revolved around his badness, a badness which put him above the white man’s law and allowed him to pass freely through the racial boundaries established by Jim Crow.”
And that Stetson hat? A symbol of manhood. Touch my hat, you’re fucking with me, brother.
So the legend has come down through the ages and everybody from big band Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians (!), to the Grateful Dead to Amy Winehouse to the Black Keys have done a version. I bet half of them don’t even know what the fuck the song is about.
Lee Shelton was tried, convicted, and went to jail. He was pardoned but eventually wound up getting incarcerated again for doing some other bad shit. He died in jail in 1912. So truthfully, Stagger Lee – badass though he may have been – never really beat the system. But legends are like daydreams. You can shape them any way you want.
And that, my friends, is the story of Stagger Lee.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t leave you with one of my favorite versions of the song. The Clash covered a song called “Wrong ’em Boyo” by a rocksteady (precursor to reggae) band called The Rulers about whom I can find almost nothing. But the cover is great and not only is it a good way to end the story, frankly it’s just an excuse to throw in another Clash song. 😀