Stagger Lee: From Mythic Blues Ballad to Ultimate Rock 'n' Record

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

 
 
"It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story."  
    --From James Baldwin's essay "Many Thousands Gone" collected in the book Notes of a Native Son.

 What is the all-time greatest rock 'n' roll record?  Popular music lovers can argue endlessly about this subject nominating hundreds of recordings ranging from Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly" to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit".  Another big debate involves identifying the first rock 'n' roll record.   One of my favorite books is titled What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record?  written by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes.  This entertaining book is packed with an amazing amount of information related to the development of rock 'n' roll, but it doesn't really answer the question posed by the title.  What it does show is that no record can be singled out as the first rock 'n' roll record.  It does this by pointing out some of the many recordings which created the innovations that came together to form the foundation upon which rock 'n' roll stands.  There simply is no record which can be identified as the first.

Obviously, we will never be able to identify the greatest rock 'n' roll record either.  It's largely a matter of personal taste.  But I propose that there may be a way to identify the ultimate rock 'n' roll record.  What I mean by the ultimate rock record is a record which is the ultimate expression of the main theme of rock 'n' roll.  Let me explain.

 

The Ultimate Rock 'n' Roll Record Defined

I will start by stating what I believe to be a reasonable definition of the ultimate rock 'n' roll record.  This definition is based upon Herb Bowie's theme-oriented approach to classifying music (see his web book at www.reasontorock.com ). Bowie identifies the main theme of the blues to be oppression. More specifically, it is the oppression of the black race by the white race.  While there is a certain element of introspection to this music, when Muddy Waters sang the blues, he was not actually singing about feeling low or being in a personal state of sadness or depression.  Instead, in singing about his experiences with pain, and suffering, and frustration, and anger, he was singing for all African-Americans about the realities of the conditions that they all faced together as members of the black race.  The subject matter of the blues was the day to day problems of black men and women living lives which were largely defined by the limitations created by white oppression.  This can be seen in comments made by Brownie McGhee to the black researcher Lawrence Redd in the early 1970s.  In an interview published in Redd's Rock Is Rhythm and Blues, McGhee explained that whiskey, women, and money may have been the things he sang about in his blues, but a song of complaint about his woman doing him wrong was actually a complaint about the white man doing him wrong.  While oppression was the theme of the blues, singing the blues was an act of protest and resistance to this oppression.  (In the 1960s, blues researchers argued that there was very little evidence of protest in the blues, but today it is generally accepted that this music--along with other forms of black music such as spirituals, soul, reggae, and rap--has a strong element of protest and resistance.  Paul Garon's book Blues and the Poetic Spirit is a classic work which has played a big part in bringing about this greater understanding of the blues.)

At the opposite end of the musical spectrum from the blues we find jazz.  Bowie points out that the main theme of this type of music is freedom.  Jazz focuses upon improvisation which is practically synonymous with musical freedom.  A standard jazz technique is to play a popular song and then improvise variations to the melody line.  In the 1950s, avant-garde players such as Ornette Coleman took the idea of musical freedom to the extreme by creating music which is known as "free jazz." 

Bowie identifies the main theme of rock 'n' roll to be liberation.  He points out that blues and jazz deal with fixed states--oppression and freedom--which are opposites of each other, while rock 'n' roll expresses the transition between these states, moving from oppression to freedom. Therefore, rock 'n' roll deals with the act of liberation, of being set free from bondage.  One of rock's all-time greats, Bruce Springsteen, would surely agree that liberation is rock 'n' roll's main theme.  In a July 30, 2002 appearance on Ted Koppel's Nightline television program, Springsteen said that the whole point of his music, and of the music of artists such as Elvis, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Public Enemy, and The Clash, is to liberate.  Upon inducting Bob Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he pointed out that the music of Elvis freed people's bodies and Dylan's freed people's minds.  Clearly, Springsteen sees rock 'n' roll as a liberating force.  There are those who would argue that rock music is about rebellion rather than liberation.  But these are simply different sides of the same coin--on one side, parents think that the music is all about youthful rebellion, and on the other, the kids feel rock's liberating power.

Based on the above and on the fact that rock developed from the blues, it would be logical to conclude that since the theme of the blues is the oppression of the black race by the white race and the theme of rock is liberation, the ultimate rock 'n' roll record (i.e. the ultimate expression of the main theme of rock 'n' roll) would be a record in which the oppressed black race--or a representative of it--liberates itself by taking on and defeating its white oppressors.  It is my belief that there is a record which fits this criteria perfectly.  That record is Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee."  I make this claim because I believe that in this particular recording of the song, Stagger Lee's victory in the epic confrontation between he and Billy DeLyon served as a metaphor for an African-American victory in the civil rights struggle.  Stagger Lee's defeat of Billy symbolized the defeat of Jim Crow and liberation from white oppression.  The rest of this essay discusses my rationale for this claim.

I will start by pointing out that in black culture the figure of Stagger Lee underwent a major transformation as indicated by the title of Professor Cecil Brown's doctoral dissertation Stagolee: From Shack Bully to Culture Hero.  In the early part of the twentieth century, Stagger Lee was known as a ruthless badman.  This was the traditional Stagger Lee.  But in the second half of the century, a major transformation took place and the modern Stagger Lee emerged.  The modern Stagger Lee was a civil rights era hero for black freedom.  Now let's look at these two different representatives of the legend.

 

The Traditional Stagger Lee:  The Feared But Admired Badman

There are many different versions of the tale of the legendary badman, but here is the general storyline.  Stagger Lee gets into a dispute with a man named Billy DeLyon after losing his Stetson hat to him 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 compassion, Stagger Lee cold-bloodedly shoots and kills his opponent.  In the classic older musical recordings of the legend, the authorities are too frightened of Stagger Lee to arrest him for his crime.  But, in many versions of the tale, he is eventually brought to justice and executed.  In certain tellings of the story, Stagger Lee is sent to hell after he is hung, but is so "bad" that he takes control of the devil's kingdom and turns it into his own "badman's paradise."

The old ballad "Stagger Lee" (also known as "Stagolee", "Stackalee", "Stack O' Lee", etc.) has been popular in the blues world for many years.  This is due, at least in part, to the appeal of the badman's legend to blacks living under the oppressive Jim Crow system.  They admired him because he was his own man and answered to nobody, including the white man's law.  According to the legend, not only did Stagger Lee defy the law, but his reputation as a badman was so awesome that lawmen feared him.  And since the law was the primary instrument by which Jim Crow was kept in place, many African-Americans must have fantasized about being as "bad" as Stagger Lee and having the law fear them in the same way that it feared the legendary badman.  The crucial aspect of the story of Stagger Lee is that he defied white authority and was so bad that he could get away with it.  Therefore, the traditional Stagger Lee was a manifestation of the blues theme of oppression, or (to be more specific) the legend was a product of the African-American will to be free of oppression.

 

The Modern Stagger Lee:  The Liberating Hero

By looking at the works and words of certain black writers and political activists from the 1960s and 1970s, we can see that Stagger Lee evolved into a symbolic hero in the black man's struggle against white oppression and racism.  He became transformed from a brutal badman to a liberating black hero.  One example of this change can be seen in the words of Bobby Seale, a leader of the Black Panther Party.  In a famous 1970 jailhouse interview (excerpted in Greil Marcus's book Mystery Train), Seale named himself and three other black leaders--Malcolm X and fellow Black Panthers Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver--as Stagger Lee figures.  He saw himself and the other three as individuals who started out as hoodlums and then gained social consciences which led them to use their Stagger Lee "badness" to confront racist white authority.

Another example of Stagger Lee's symbolic role as a hero for black freedom can be found in the words of the great black writer James Baldwin.  In the Foreword he wrote for Seale’s autobiography, Baldwin asserts that Rosa Parks was instrumental in helping Stagger Lee achieve manhood.  In saying this, he was pointing to the fact that Rosa Parks led the way for angry young blacks such as Bobby Seale and Malcolm X to undergo a transformation in which they matured from hoodlums and criminals into black freedom fighters. 

A third example comes from Julius Lester’s 1969 book Black Folktales.  Therein, he gave a very prominent black versus white dimension to his version of the Stagger Lee legend in several ways.  For example, his retelling of the legend has the frightened sheriff aligning himself with the KKK in order to arrest Stagger Lee for killing Billy.  Also, this black versus white theme appears again when Stagger Lee dies and he finds that heaven is populated by white people only and hell is filled with black people.

Stagger Lee's evolution from badman to champion for black freedom can be seen in Muhammad Ali's defeat of Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title.  Liston was the badman incarnation of the myth, a powerful fighter with mob connections who learned to box while doing time in prison.   On the other hand, Ali became a representative of the modern freedom fighting Stagger Lee; soon after his victory over Liston he changed his name--abandoning the name Cassius Clay which he referred to as his "slave name"--and quickly developed into a symbol of black pride and resistance.

 

The Traditional Versus the Modern Stagger Lee

Here is the key difference between the traditional and the modern Stagger Lees.  The traditional Stagger Lee's activities were confined to the black community.  His story took place within this community as Stagger Lee killed another black man.  But the modern Stagger Lee directed his anger towards white oppression.  As Cecil Brown points out in his book Stagolee Shot Billy, after Stagger Lee evolved into a hero he "fought back against the system".  Therefore, Billy, in effect, became a white man representing white authority.  He was no longer simply the gambler who stole Stagger Lee's Stetson; he was also the white man who stole his manhood--the sheriff, the judge, the lawmakers, and the businessmen who called Stagger Lee "boy" and who created and enforced the Jim Crow laws which oppressed him and his people.  Now let's explore how these major changes may have come about.

During the days of the traditional Stagger Lee, singing and telling stories about the legendary badman may have served the purpose of being an indirect--and therefore safe--method of resisting the oppression of Jim Crow.  This resistance would have been crucial to the survival of African-Americans because choosing to not resist would have been the same as giving up on life.  Therefore, the oral tradition of passing down the legend to the next generation was probably a survival technique.  Supporting this idea is the fact that James Baldwin once told Maya Angelou that survival was a main ingredient which African-Americans put into their folk tales (as related by Angelou in her book A Song Flung Up to Heaven).

With the coming of the modern Stagger Lee, we can see that the legend evolved to reflect the changing mood of black America.  African-Americans were through with biding their time; the time was right to move from using indirect resistance to making a direct challenge to Jim Crow.  And on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks issued that challenge.  Her refusal to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back of the bus was a Stagger Lee-like act of "badness" which gave birth to the modern Stagger Lee.   Now he was no longer simply the badman who instilled fear in the hearts of lawmen and all others.  Instead, he would become a heroic black freedom fighter, a symbol to African-Americans of liberation not lawlessness. 

For the remainder of this essay, it is my aim to show that, in addition to the words and writings of Baldwin, Seale, and Lester, the modern Stagger Lee can be found in Lloyd Price's recording of "Stagger Lee."  Price's record is the musical counterpart to these other sources.  Although it does not explicitly present Stagger Lee as a black freedom hero, we can find evidence pointing to him in this role by listening closely to the lyrics and music.  Let's explore both.

To start with, the record sounds like a celebration, like a Gary U.S. Bonds party record or a frat rock record.  The music swings with a vengeance and Price's voice is filled with exuberance.  Greil Marcus, in his classic piece on Stagger Lee in the book Mystery Train, points out that Price's "manic enthusiasm" is the ingredient that was missing in previous recordings of the song.  The upbeat tone and aggressive attitude of the record were quite different from the many earlier recordings done by other musicians. 

Similarly, in the area of lyrical content, there is a major difference between Price's recording and earlier ones.  We can see this by comparing the lyrics in Price's record to those in Mississippi John Hurt's "Stack O' Lee", the classic blues version of the song.  In Hurt's record, he uses the words "cruel" and "bad" to describe Stagger Lee, but negative descriptions such as these are not used in Price's record.  (Of course, the word "bad" can actually have a positive connotation in black slang, but Hurt did not use it in this way.)  Also, in Hurt's recording, Stagger Lee is punished for his crime as he is arrested, brought to trial, and executed.  But in Price's record, Stagger Lee is not arrested, nor sent to trial, nor punished in any way.  In fact, the celebratory tone of the record and the backup singers' rooting Stagger Lee on with the chant "Go Stagger Lee" seem to present him to the listener as a hero rather than a badman.

Although the lyrics do not present Stagger Lee specifically as a freedom fighting  hero, they do contain what might be a clue for the listener--especially an African-American listener--to see the song in this light. That clue lies in the extraordinary introduction, an introduction which originated with this particular recording of the Stagger Lee legend.  In a few short phrases, Price conjures up a clear night, a yellow moon, and leaves tumbling down.  You could call it an incantation.  Then all hell breaks loose as seven quick horn blasts shatter the calm.  This evokes another song--a slave spiritual titled "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho"--in that the line "and the leaves came tumbling down" (which completes the introduction) echoes the spiritual's line "and the walls came tumbling down".  (After "Stagger Lee", Price also had a hit with "Personality" a record which was influenced by another spiritual "Wade in the Water" as noted in What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record?.)

We can see why this is important by looking at the significance of this spiritual.  It deals with a Bible story about a battle at Jericho in which God brought down the city's walls upon the sounding of trumpets and the shouting of a battle cry.  To African-Americans, "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" had a special meaning in that this battle was symbolic of the fight to end slavery.  As Price's record was released in 1958 during the civil rights struggle, a black man noticing the connection between the two songs would have been likely to interpret "Stagger Lee's" tumbling down of leaves as symbolic of the walls of segregation tumbling down.  If this writer--a white man who has only heard this particular spiritual a handful of times--noticed the connection, there must have been many African-Americans (especially those that had regularly sung this popular spiritual in church) who also made this connection while the record was climbing the pop and R&B charts in the late 1950s. And it follows logically that, to many of these African-Americans, Stagger Lee's struggle with Billy DeLyon could have symbolized the black man's struggle for liberation from white oppression.

 

A New Interpretation of Stagger  Lee

If you interpret the lyrics in Price's version of "Stagger Lee" literally, they tell a violent tale of ghetto or street justice, nothing more.  But taking this viewpoint ignores the deeper meaning that the song and the legend held for many years.  Price's record did not exist in a vacuum; African-Americans who were familiar with the legend and earlier recordings of the song heard Price's new version from a certain frame of reference, a frame of reference which revolved around America's race problem.

Therefore, the appropriate thing to do is to identify the interpretation that African-Americans would have given to this new and radically different recording of "Stagger Lee."  As discussed earlier, the appeal of the traditional Stagger Lee was that he was so "bad" that he did not have to answer to white authority and was not subject to the white man's law.  But the lyrics in Price's record do not characterize Stagger Lee as "bad" and make no mention of lawmen or the law.  This left the song open for a new interpretation.  And it stands to reason that it would have been reinterpreted based on the current state of black-white relations in America. 

So let's explore how Price's record may have been reinterpreted.  Keeping in mind that the modern Stagger Lee is a hero and not a badman, we will begin by looking again at the lyrics and focusing on what happened while Billy and Stagger Lee were shooting dice.  According to the lyrics, Stagger Lee rolled a seven but Billy swore that the dice totaled eight.  Billy was a fraud.  Stagger Lee lost his Stetson to a cheat.  Therefore, in Price's recording, Stagger Lee is presented as a man who was swindled and then exacted justice by taking the law into his own hands. 

Based on the lyrical changes discussed earlier and the circumstance under which Stagger Lee lost his hat, it is my theory that Price's record led to (or was part of) a new interpretation of the Stagger Lee legend in which many African-Americans saw the story as being about the black struggle for freedom.  With this interpretation, Billy's act of cheating Stagger Lee out of his hat could have been symbolic of the fact that whites cheated blacks out of their freedom through the establishment of Jim Crow laws and customs which created a segregated society and oppressed the black race.  Continuing on with this interpretation, the fight over the Stetson can be seen as representing the black man's struggle to liberate himself from Jim Crow and regain his freedom.  On the surface, the record told a tale of street justice; underneath, it reflected the fact that African-Americans had grown tired of waiting for justice and would begin to actively pursue it with more radical tactics, tactics which involved directly confronting and challenging Jim Crow laws and white authority.  While Price's "Stagger Lee" was dominating the pop and R&B charts in late 1958 and 1959 (it rose to #1 on both charts), Martin Luther King--and others, such as Jim Lawson, the black minister who led a group of college students to challenge segregation in early 1960 with lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville--were mapping out their plans to use nonviolent protest and civil disobedience to defeat Jim Crow.  They based their tactics on Gandhi's use of militant nonviolence.

The dispute over the Stetson may be the real key to understanding how Price's "Stagger Lee" was interpreted by African-Americans.  This hat was very popular among black men during the first half of the twentieth century.  Louis Armstrong notes this in his book Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans when he explains that many blacks coveted Stetsons and often purchased them on installment plans. The reason these hats were so popular is that they held a special meaning.  In his doctoral dissertation, Stagolee: From Shack Bully to Culture Hero, Professor Cecil Brown, the world's foremost authority on the legend of Stagger Lee, points out that Stagger Lee's hat "represents his manhood."  Brown relates that men wore Stetsons as symbols of "newly won black male masculinity" at the time of the occurrence of the murder upon which the legend is largely based.

The murder took place in 1895 which means that many of the men who wore the Stetsons were former slaves or sons of slaves.  Therefore, in representing the manhood of African-Americans, the Stetson was ultimately a symbol of freedom; the black man's manhood is tied to his freedom and his struggle for freedom as indicated by Baldwin's statement that Rosa Parks helped Stagger Lee achieve his manhood.  This connection between black manhood and the struggle for freedom can also be seen by briefly examining Spike Lee's book By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X...  The book's introduction, written by Terry McMillan, is devoted to a discussion of black manhood which puts forth Malcolm X as a role model.  The book ends with the eulogy delivered by Ossie Davis at the end of Lee's film.  In the eulogy, Davis stated, "Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood."  Before page one of the book, there is a quote from Malcolm X about what it takes to be a free and self-respecting African-American.  The quote includes the words "The white man wants you to remain a boy", making reference to the term that the slavemasters applied to their male slaves.

Therefore, if the Stetson represented the black man's manhood, the fight over the hat is likely to have represented the black man's struggle for freedom.  And this is my whole point!  Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" reflected the black struggle for freedom and even appears to have predicted the more combative stance--the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and even the turn by some to Black Power--that African-Americans would take in the 1960s.  With this record, "Stagger Lee" was reshaped from a cautionary blues ballad to an aggressive rock 'n' roll song.  The factors which I pointed out earlier--the exuberance in Price's voice, the backup singers chanting "Go Stagger Lee", and the celebratory tone of the record--contributed to this reshaping.  And these changes also must have influenced how this song was interpreted.  In effect, Price created a new song with a new symbolic meaning.  By taking "Stagger Lee"--a song which reflects and stems from the oppression of the black race by the white race--out of its blues tradition and recording it as a rock 'n' roll song, Lloyd Price changed its theme from oppression to liberation.  And this transformation was brought about by Price regardless of what his intentions were or what was going on in his conscious or subconscious mind.  A song which was so deeply rooted in the tragedy and inhumanity of the white race's oppression and enslavement of the black race, and which was recorded by a member of that black race in such a jubilant, rocking, and exhilarating tone, could no longer be a blues song or a song of oppression.  It could only be one thing:  rock 'n' roll.  And as rock 'n' roll it announced an amazing turn of events:  victory and freedom. 

Earlier, I brought out the idea that the ultimate expression of rock 'n' roll would be a record in which the oppressed black race liberates itself by doing battle with, and defeating, its white oppressors.  This is what I believe we have in Price's "Stagger Lee."  It is a record of black liberation.  Here, Stagger Lee--as a representative of all the black leaders and other individuals who had struggled for freedom or who would struggle for it in the future--symbolically defeats white oppression.  This is the ultimate expression of rock 'n' roll's theme of liberation.  Therefore, I see Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" as the ultimate rock 'n' roll record.

With this understanding of Price's "Stagger Lee", the record's jubilant tone makes perfect sense.  It was a record of anticipatory celebration serving as a vision of liberation from white oppression in the same way that certain slave spirituals, such as "In That Great Gettin' Up Morning", served as visions of release from slavery.  Writing in How Sweet The Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel, Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer points out that this particular spiritual, and others, were sung as songs of celebration in the mid-1800s when the slaves foresaw that freedom was close at hand.  When Price recorded "Stagger Lee" in late 1958, African-Americans must have had a similar anticipation of victory in the civil rights struggle.  They had won several important battles, including the Montgomery bus boycott, and their charismatic leader Martin Luther King had emerged on the national and international scenes.  Therefore, this civil rights era recording of "Stagger Lee", with Price's exuberant voice and the jubilant musical accompaniment, could have served as a song of release and celebration similar to "In That Great Gettin' Up Morning."

This linking of the Stagger Lee legend to the civil rights and Black Power movements is part of an evolutionary process that has gone on for over 100 years, a process in which tellers of the tale have transformed it to reflect the states of their lives and their worlds.  Subsequent to Price's record, Stagger Lee (or characters based on him) appeared in, among other places, Jamaica's rude boy records of the 1960s, the Superfly movies of the 1970s, rap music from the late 1980s, and Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins mystery books as the character Raymond "Mouse" Alexander in the 1990s.  Today, Stagger Lee is most visible in our young people's favorite music--rap.  Or to be more precise, gangster rap.  Gangster rap is a violent, uncompromising music which reflects the realities of life in the ghetto making it the perfect vehicle for the playing out of Stagger Lee's legendary badness.  At some point in the future, rap will fade from the scene and be replaced by another form of music.   No matter--Stagger Lee's legend will continue to live on; it would be a major surprise if it didn't.  The amazing thing is that after over a century his story may be becoming even more relevant to our stories.  As the world seems to grow increasingly violent and dangerous with every tick of the clock, we may find ourselves looking to the legend more and more--not because Stagger Lee is the ultimate bad man, but because, as the man who beat the devil and turned hell into his own version of paradise, he's the ultimate survivor. 

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The Hidden Message in Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee"

Did Lloyd Price's late-1950s rock 'n' roll hit "Stagger Lee" convey a special hidden message to African Americans?  I believe that it did.  Specifically, I believe that the record was interpreted by some blacks as being about their struggle for freedom from white oppression.  Click here to learn more about this subject.