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Exploring and Decoding the Legend of the
 
Black Badman Known as Stagger Lee
 
 

Copyright © 2002-2009
by James P. Hauser except where otherwise noted
All rights reserved.

 
 
A researcher, looking for the historical figure who inspired the legend about the black badman known as Stagger Lee, uncovered a newspaper story which reported that a man named Lee Shelton, also known as Stag Lee, shot another man named William Lyons in a dispute over a hat.  That article, as it appeared in the December 28, 1895 edition of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, is reproduced below (Note 1).

 

Shot in Curtis's Place

William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, 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, also colored.  Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits.  Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together.  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 drew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen.  Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious.  He was removed to the city hospital.  At the time of the shooting, the saloon was crowded with negroes.  Sheldon is a carriage driver and lives at North Twelfth Street.  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.  Sheldon is also known as "Stag" Lee.

Note:  Shelton's last name was misspelled in the article as Sheldon.

 

 

Stagger Lee: A Classic African American Folktale:

 
The legend of Stagger Lee is one of the most important and enduring stories from American folklore.  It is a tale that originated from  African-American oral tradition, and it also  has become a very popular story within the white community.
 
There are many different versions of the tale, but here is the general storyline.  Stagger Lee (also known as Stagolee, Stack O' Lee, Stackerlee, Stackalee etc.) gets into a dispute with a man named Billy DeLyon (also known as Billy the Lion or  Billy Lyons) after losing his Stetson hat to Billy while gambling.  Stagger Lee pulls a gun--sometimes identified as a .45, other times as a "smokeless .44"--on Billy who then pleads to be spared for the sake of his wife and children.  Showing no mercy, Stagger Lee cold-bloodedly shoots and kills his opponent. 

The killer's reputation for "badness" is a key to the story.  According to some classic musical recordings of the legend (such as "Mississippi" John Hurt's "Stack O'Lee Blues"), the authorities are too frightened of Stagger Lee to arrest him for his crime.  In some versions of the tale, he is eventually caught by the authorities, but the judge refuses to sentence him to prison because he fears that the badman will strike back against him.   In certain tellings of the story, Stagger Lee appears in hell after he is killed or executed, but is so "bad" that he takes control of the devil's kingdom and turns it into his own badman's paradise.

 

Discovering the Meaning Behind the Legend:

I started thinking about the significance of the African-American song tradition surrounding the legend of Stagger Lee after I heard the white rock musician Huey Lewis's recording  "Stagger Lee" which he based on Lloyd Price's classic hit from the late 1950s.  Lewis recorded a straight cover of Price's record, but he made a very significant change to the lyrics--the backup vocalists sing "Whoa! Stagger Lee" in Lewis's version, but they chant "Go! Stagger Lee" in Price's record. 

After recognizing this change, I began to wonder why the backup singers in Price's version seem to be urging Stagger Lee on to kill his opponent.  It also puzzled me why Price had sung a song about the killing of a human being in such an exuberant manner.  I began to consider whether the song was symbolic.  It occurred to me that possibly there was more to the story than could be gotten from a strictly literal interpretation of the lyrics.  (The great black writer and folklore collector Zora Neale Hurston maintained that every single African-American folk tale makes some kind of point.)

I began to do research and found that, according to folklore experts, 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.

The Stagger Lee Files are the result of my explorations into what lies behind the legend.  I am trained to do research (I'm a librarian by trade), and looking into the mysteries behind the legend has gotten me completely hooked.  Lee Shelton's killing of William Lyons may be the event that inspired the tale of Stagger Lee, but it is now only a small part of the badman's story, a story which has led me down many paths in the history of America and its music, culture and people.  If I've piqued your curiosity, below you will find more information and details about the legend and the music that told Stagger Lee's story.  You'll also find some of my own ideas and theories related to the significance and meaning of the great badman and folk hero known as Stagger Lee.

 

 

Stagger Lee, Liberation, and
the Ultimate Rock 'n' Roll Record:

Cecil Brown, in his book Stagolee Shot Billy, points out that the Stetson hat represented manhood to black Americans.   He explains that the struggle between Stagger Lee and Billy over the hat represents a fight for manhood.  One of the main points I make in my essay below (titled "Stagger Lee: From Mythic Blues Ballad to Ultimate Rock 'n' Roll Record") is that this struggle for manhood was symbolic of the struggle for black freedom.  I also argue that Lloyd Price's classic 1958 recording "Stagger Lee" is a record which points to victory for African-Americans in their fight for freedom, just as certain black spirituals pointed to the day when slavery would end.  I believe that Price's version of the Stagger Lee legend is a landmark record which reflects the outlaw's transformation from badman to hero, with his victory over Billy acting as a symbol of liberation. 

My essay goes on to show that by looking at the relationships between three forms of African-American music--blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll--Price's "Stagger Lee", the first rock 'n' roll version of the legend, may be seen as a prime candidate for the title of definitive or ultimate rock 'n' roll record. 
 
 
Go to the essay 
 
 
 

The Stetson Hat:

In Mississippi John Hurt's "Stack O' Lee Blues", he laments that Billy was murdered over a five-dollar Stetson hat.  Bob Dylan's extraordinary version of the song, based on an obscure 1927 recording by Frank Hutchison titled "Stackalee", echoes that sentiment as in a wailing voice he repeatedly lays the blame for all the trouble on "that John B. Stetson hat."   Was the fight between Stagger Lee and Billy simply a dispute over stolen property?  Or was it something more?  To learn about the significance of the Stetson hat in the badman's legend, click on the link below:
 
           The Symbolic Meaning of the Stetson Hat
    
     

Stagger Lee Recordings:

Discographies of the many musical recordings about Stagger Lee can be found here: 
                        Stagger Lee Recordings

 

 

Stagger Lee: The Original Gangsta

Who was the original gangster?  Was it Schoolly D, the man who some say invented gangsta rap?  Or was it Sweetback, the character created by Mario Van Peebles for his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song?  Some folks have even suggested that Jack Johnson, the first black boxer to become heavyweight champ, is the original gangster.  And some folks will argue that the OG is Stagger Lee because he is the archetype for the black badman.  Rolling Stone magazine referred to Stagger Lee as the original gangsta in its December 9, 2004 issue.  For more on Stagger Lee as the Original Gangster click here: The Original Gangsta
 

 

 

Stagger Lee's Brothers:

Many individuals from America's history can be seen as Stagger Lee figures including Malcolm X, boxers Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, rapper Tupac Shakur, Black Panther Bobby Seale, and politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr.  The spirit of Stagger Lee can also be found in characters such as Sweetback and Superfly who starred in the blaxploitation films of the 1970s.  A Stagger Lee figure from American literature is Bigger Thomas, the badman in Richard Wright's Native Son. 

More on this subject can be found here: Stagger Lee's Brothers

 

 

The Search for the Real Stagger Lee:

For information about the search for the historical figures behind the legend, click here: The Search for the Real Stagger Lee 

 

The Original Stagger Lee Essay

In August 2005, this website underwent a change in format.  The original format featured a long seven part essay.  The new version of this site takes various aspects of the Stagger Lee legend and breaks them out into separate sections, each of which contain relatively shorter length writings.  It's the author's goal to take much of the material which is in the original Stagger Lee essay and incorporate it into the new format.  Also, a lot of new information will be added which was not in the original Stagger Lee essay.

The seven part essay from the original version of the Stagger Lee Files is available by clicking here:  Original Stagger Lee Essay

 

 

Sources (Bibliography/Webliography):

For a list of some of the many sources, including books, articles, and web pages, which were consulted in writing the Stagger Lee Files, click here:  Sources / Bibliography

 

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For more information on the legend of Stagger Lee, read Cecil Brown's book Stagolee Shot Billy, published by Harvard University Press. 
 
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For a great graphic novel about Stagger Lee, read Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix
 
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