Crime Song Wednesday: Stagger Lee

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

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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  1. I’d add a third classic crime song: “Frankie and Johnny.” My favorite version is Sam Cooke’s.

    And I’ve always preferred Lloyd Price’s rendition of “Stagger Lee” to any other.

  2. Lloyd Price’s version tells the better story, but I’d rather listen to Jackson’s. Some fine talking blues there.

  3. If you want to do a guest spot for Crime Song Wednesday let me know. Mcfetridge did one a few weeks back.

  4. Dead on review of this mythology: The social themes, the way it bleeds across generations, the poison and petty glory at its core that keep it kicking.

    It so inspired me that I went all ‘meta’ and had one of my principal recurring characters take on the infamous Stagger name. It’s a legend that just won’t quit – our dive bar Hercules. Glad you gave him a tip of the ten-gallon for all these nice folks on Spinetingler.

    Here’s another Stagger – “Stacker Lee” – song from Josh Ritter:

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