> Trevor Lucas > Songs > Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee / Stagolee

[ Roud 4183 ; Laws I15 ; Ballad Index LI15 ; Mudcat 198 ; trad.]

John Gibbon sang Stakolee in 1957 on his Topic album John Gibbon’s Disc.

Trevor Lucas sang Stagger Lee accompanied by guitar and mouth-organ in full early Dylan mode from the 1963 Folk Attick recordings in Sydney—plenty of suck and blow braced harmonica playing between the verses, and very typical of that protest folk singer period. This recording was included in 1994 on the Friends of Fairport cassette Together Again - The Attic Tracks Vol. 4.

Jesse Fuller sang Stackolee in a recording made by Peter Kennedy at Cecil Sharp House on 19 March 1965. This track was included in the same year on Fuller’s Topic album Move On Down the Line. Joe Boyd commented in the album’s sleeve notes:

Of all the hero or villain legends in American folk music, Stackolee ‘that bad man’ appears in both white and Negro ballads, often with references to the supernatural powers of his ‘Five Dollar Stetson Hat’. There was a notorious family named Lee in Memphis during the late nineteenth century, and a longshoreman (stevedore) was often known as a stacker. The song was part of Ma Rainey’s repertoire long before she recorded it in 1925. There are several recorded melodies for the song, of which I think Jesse’s is the most interesting.

Martin Simpson sang Stagolee in 2007 on his Topic album True Stories. He commented in his liner notes:

I first learned Stagolee from Mississippi John Hurt and recorded it when I was 17. The origins of the story were long guessed at, but it was widespread amongst blues singers, songsters, old timey musicians, R&B singers and rock and rollers throughout the 20th century. In 2003, Harvard University Press published Cecil Brown’s book, Stagolee Shot Billy, a superbly written account of the facts. Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons on Christmas Night, in 1859. I’ve attempted to put some of the facts back into the song without losing the poetry. Facts aren’t everything, but these are all true stories in one way or another.

Snakefarm sang Staggerlee in 2011 on their Fledg’ling CD My Halo at Half-Light.

Rattle on the Stovepipe sang Stackolee in 2017 on their WildGoose CD Poor Ellen Smith. They noted:

“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.” (St Louis Globe-Democrat, 26 December 1895)

Billy Lyons and Lee ‘Stack Lee’ Shelton, a carriage-driver and pimp, got into a political argument during which Billy snatched Stackolee’s Stetson hat and refused to return it. A large John B. Stetson and flash clothes were the sign of a successful pimp and not to be disrespected. Stackolee, with a reputation to keep up in the violent red-light districts of Deep Morgan and Chestnut Valley, drew his .44 and shot Lyons, picked up his hat, and calmly left the bar and went home to bed, where he was arrested the next morning. A number of Stackolee’s ‘clients’ were local politicians and civic dignitaries so it’s no surprise that he escaped the gallows for his first-degree murder. Songwriters, however, felt differently and in the songs that started to emerge soon after the affair, he swings for his sins. They even credited him with being so bad that he kicked the Devil out of Hell and took over himself. In reality he ended up serving 12 years of a 25 year sentence and left Missouri’s Jefferson City Penitentiary in 1909. He died three years later from TB. There were several other killings over that Christmas in St Louis but, for some reason, this one caught the popular imagination. Hugely popular, over the years more than 200 versions of Stackolee have been recorded, but few as fast as Dan [Stewart] likes to play this version.


Mississippi John Hurt sings Stagolee

Police officer, how can it be?
You can ’rest everybody, but cruel Stagolee,
That bad man, oh cruel Stagolee.

Mister Lyons told Stagolee, “Please don’t take my life,
I got two little babes, and a darling loving wife,”
That bad man, oh cruel Stagolee.

“What I care ’bout two little babes, darling loving wife?
You done stole my Stetson hat, I’m bound to take your life,”
That bad man, oh cruel Stagolee.

Boom boom, boom boom, went the forty-four,
O when I spied Mister Lyons, he’s lying down on the floor,
That bad man, oh cruel Stagolee.

“Gentlemen of the jury, What do you think of that?
Stagolee killed Billy Lyons all ’bout that Stetson hat,
That bad man, oh cruel Stagolee.”

Hanging on the gallows, head way up high,
At twelve o’clock they killed him, they’s all glad to see him die,
That bad man, oh cruel Stagolee.


See also Paul Slade’s essay A Christmas Killing: Stagger Lee.