Two weeks ago when I wrote about Hey Joe I said that there were at least two songs entered into the crime song hall of fame. The other besides “Hey Joe” is “Stagger Lee”.
In terms of song Stagger Lee (and all of various names) is the baddest of the bad. The song “Stagger Lee” is based on a man named Lee Shelton. Shelton was a criminal and a pimp who killed a man named William “Billy” Lyons. The crime and the man would quickly become a folk hero, legend and entered into myth. Versions of the song spread all across the American South before starting to appear on records in the 20’s. Some of the variations of the song would be subtle (especially when sung by a white performer) and others would be drastic.
There are no set lyrics. All variations riff off of the topic and create their own versions and explore something different sating as much about the song and man as they do about the performer and their times. Whatever the relevant issues of the time “Stagger Lee” proves time and time again to be mutable and adaptable. His power has only grown over time and new generations are constantly reworking the original material. In some versions there are religious elements in others there are supernatural. There are versions of the song where he gets sent to Hell then takes it over. So just listen.
It was hard to settle on which versions to play. Here are four. All different, all intense. Don’t skip any of them.
The absolutely fascinating history of the case and the song can be read here