Bad Ass Liberator: The Enduring Legacy of Staggerlee

Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee

The first I ever heard the name Staggerlee was on a ‘Mississippi’ John Hurt record.  The way Hurt sang, so softly, so melodiously, belied the tragedy of the tale. It was only the repeated references to the ‘bad man Staggerlee’ that gave any idea that this was a dark story of cruel murder.

I am currently making my way through the excellent book Stagolee Shot Billy in which Cecil Brown explores both the history of the protagonist of one of America’s most resilient ballads as well as its evolution as a piece of folk music that has found a home in styles from jazz to hillbilly and the blues.  Brown also explores the song as a way to understand African-American masculinity and a way to resist an oppressive and brutal political system. Absolutely fascinating!

I’ll quote a bit from the book for tonight’s post.

In walked Stagger Lee

In walked Stagger Lee

The origins of the Stagolee legend coincide with the origins of the blues in the 1890s. The legend had its first expression as a field holler of former plantation slaves as they migrated to the levee camps along the Mississippi. From there the legend moved to southern prisons, where it was honed and shaped into a work song. Stagolee also expressed the worldview and feelings of poor white hillbillies, who adopted the legend as one of their own.


The legend survives because black men pass it on. As culture critic Greil Marcus observes, Stagolee “is a story that black America has never tired of hearing and never stopped living out, like whites with their Westerns.”


Stagolee has taken musical shape as ballad, as blues, as jazz, as epic, as folk song, and as rap. There are at least twenty jazz recordings, by musicians ranging from Cab Calloway, Jimmy Dorsey, and Peggy Lee to Duke Ellington. More than a hundred bluesmen, from Champion Jack Dupree and Sonny Terry to Mississippi John Hurt, have recorded it. During the 1930s and 1940s John Lomax and his son Alan collected it from prisoners across the South, in the form of a strictly folk protest music; at least a dozen recordings survive in the Library of Congress. And it has thrived as a soul tune rendered by James Brown, Neil Diamond, Fats Domino, and Wilson Pickett. Performers of Stagolee have ranged from levee workers to white female “coon-shouters,” from whorehouse pianists to black female blues shouters, from hundreds of “unidentified Negro convicts” to famous contemporary musicians such as Huey Lewis and the News, Bob Dylan, and the Grateful Dead, and from 1920s Hawaiian guitarists to 1970s English groups like the Clash.


There was indeed a real Stagolee, a well-known figure in St.Louis’s red-light district during the 1890s, a pimp who, when he shot and killed William Lyons, was the president of a “Colored Four Hundred Club,” a political and social organization. In December 9, 1937, Tyrrell Williams, a law professor at Washington University, wrote an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch,  claiming that the Stagolee ballad was based on “the killing by a Negro bully named Stacker Lee (or Stack O’ Lee) of another Negro named Lyon, because Lyon accidentally spit in the Stetson owned by Lee. ”He claimed that his information had come from William Marion Reedy, a journalist and critic who was active during the 1890s. Reedy had told Williams “that Lee was an actual character and that the lawyer who defended him was Nathaniel Dryden.” A sketchy narrative of Lee Shelton’s life is also available from newspaper articles and other public records.


Jim 'Slaughter' Brown

Jim ‘Slaughter’ Brown

In the blues, Stack changed names, but little else. He was the Crawling Kingsnake; Tommy Johnson pouring Sterno down his throat, singing “Canned heat, canned heat is killing me”; Muddy Waters’s cool and elemental Rollin’ Stone; Chuck Berry’s Brown-Eyed Handsome Man; Bo Diddley with a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind; Wilson Pickett’s Midnight Mover; Mick Jagger’s Midnight Rambler . . . When the civil rights movement got tough, [Staggerlee] took over. And Staggerlee would come roaring back to the screen in the ’70s, as Slaughter, Sweet Sweetback, Superfly


The basic story is that in St Louis, on Christmas Day 1895, a nattily dressed pimp but also local political activist and businessman by the name of Stack Lee entered a bar where he met a friend named Billy Lyons.  As the two chatted Lyons somehow grabbed Lee’s beautiful and prized Stetson hat.

Police officer, how can it be?

You can ‘rest everybody but cruel Stack O’ Lee

That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee

Billy de Lyon told Stack O’ Lee, “Please don’t take my life,

I got two little babies, and a darlin’ lovin’ wife”

That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee

“What I care about you little babies, your darlin’ lovin’ wife?

You done stole my Stetson1 hat, I’m bound to take your life”


That bad man, cruel Stack O’ Lee

…with the forty-four

When I spied Billy de Lyon, he was lyin’ down on the floor

That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

“Gentleman’s of the jury, what do you think of that?

Stack O’ Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat”

That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee

And all they gathered, hands way up high,

at twelve o’clock they killed him, they’s all glad to see him die

That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee

The basic tale has been told a thousand times with as many variations in the lyrics and details but always it is Lee who kills Lyon and usually over a Stetson hat.  The above lyrics are the version preferred by ‘Mississippi’John Hurt.  But as Cecil Brown points out, while the white world has come to see Staggerlee as a ‘very bad man’ and a person of little moral value, to black audiences he was a far more complex character.  A man who stood up for his rights. A man of wealth and standing who was provoked to take the fatal step of murder. A man who experienced the cruelty of the white man’s prison system. A liberator of sorts who as a pimp, or mack (as pimps were known in St Louis), held economic power over white men and women.

To celebrate this great story and an incredibly rich character of American popular music Washerman’s Dog has compiled a collection of Stagolee inspired songs.  Several versions of the ballad are interspersed with songs from contemporary blues bands, 70’s-era Blaxploitation film and icons of the blues who tell similar stories about the good-bad nigger who is a lover, cool, shady, rich and volatile.  The ultimate anti-hero and danger man.

Boom boom!



Track Listing:

  1. Stagolee [Mississippi John Hurt]
  2. Backdoor Man [T-Model Ford]
  3. Stackalee [Frank Hutchison]
  4. King Slaughter [James Brown]
  5. Stack a Lee [Bob Dylan]
  6. Superfly [Curtis Mayfield]
  7. Am I Black Enough for You? [Billy Paul]
  8. Son of Shaft [Bar-Kays]
  9. Mister Magic [Grover Washington Jr.]
  10. Sweet Sweetback’s Theme [Earth Wind and Fire]
  11. Stagger Lee [Taj Mahal]
  12. Theme from Savage [Don Julian]
  13. Mack the Knife [Louis Armstrong]
  14. Brother Rap [James Brown]
  15. Bad Man [T-Model Ford]
  16. Stack Shot Billy [The Black Keys]
  17. Clean up Man [Eddie Finley]
  18. Mannish Boy [Muddy Waters]
  19. Tail Dragger [Howlin’ Wolf]
  20. Stack-o-lee [Champion Jack Dupree]
  21. The Cisco Kid [WAR]
  22. I’m a Midnight Mover [Bobby Womack]
  23. He’s a Misstra Know it All [Stevie Wonder]
  24. A Pimp [The Watts Prophets]
  25. Super Bad [Idris Muhammad]
  26. Crawling Kingsnake [Honeyboy Edwards]
  27. Brown Eye Handsome Man [Nina Simone]
  28. I’m the Wolf [Howlin’ Wolf]
  29. Boom Boom [John Lee Hooker]


13 thoughts on “Bad Ass Liberator: The Enduring Legacy of Staggerlee

      1. sorry, no

        don’t reply to this, I just never want to give out to much info, thus my tag, no offense intended.
        I don’t remember where I learned about your blog, it’s like ghostcapital or aquariumdrunkard, and then there’s exystence, reminiscent of STH. Thanks for sharing

      2. greengorio

        I didn’t expect my comments to be published, with a fake email and no name, and I

        rarely offer enough thanks for all the sharing going on everywhere. Even rarer is to offer

        something back. Here is the music that I got from Old Weird America above, plus some.

        Again, thanks for sharing. Does zippy work for you?

        Stackalee Variations 1

        Stackalee Variations 2

        Stackalee Variations 3

        19 Stackalee – Frank Hutchison

        and from the same neighborhood in the index, this music knocks me out
        Singers & Players – Staggering Heights (On-U LP23)

  1. Chainsaw

    Thanks for this! I love a good exploration of one song. The John Henry story is one of my faves that has so many recorded variations. And Frog(gie) Went A’Courting, which gets made a lot as a children’s song, but has a tradition in folk (Woody, Pete and Dylan) and bluegrass (Doc) and even a kick-a$$ rocking version by Flat Duo Jets. What other songs do you have that could warrant their own post?

  2. Pingback: diverted | oookblog2

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s