Discussion in 'All Things Africa' started by Isaiah, Jan 11, 2006.

  1. Isaiah

    Isaiah Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Jun 8, 2004
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    Exploring and Decoding the Legend of the Black Badman Known as Stagger Lee

    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.

    Stagger Lee: A Classic Tale from
    the American Bible of Violence:

    The legend of Stagger Lee is one of the most important and enduring stories from American folklore. It is a tale that comes from the African-American oral tradition, and it has also 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 compassion at all, Stagger Lee cold-bloodedly shoots and kills his opponent.

    The killer's reputation for evil 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 the badman 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 rebellion and freedom to African-Americans. This was because, while they had to abide by the twisted laws 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 peaked 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.

  2. MississippiRed

    MississippiRed Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Aug 11, 2004
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    Stagga Lee is my inspiration .....Southern Badass

    here's old John Hurt's lyrics.

    "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 Stetson hat, I'm bound to take you life.
    That bad man, cruel Stack O' Lee.
    (Fourth and fifth verses hummed)
    ..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.
    Gentlemans 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 "

  3. cherryblossom

    cherryblossom Banned MEMBER

    Feb 28, 2009
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    Folklore is right....This story in song and by repetition has gone through many changes.

    The story has been retold so much, the real "Stagger Lee" is hard to find.

    But, it did make a good song!