Lee Shelton lived from March 16, 1865 – March 11, 1912 in St. Louis Missouri. Who was Lee Shelton and why should we care? Well, Mr. Shelton shot William Lyons on Christmas night 1895. Shelton, was sent to the big house where he eventually died of tuberculosis. The murder was immortalized in song and legend. Shelton was destined to become a folk figure known as Stagger Lee or Stackolee or even Stagolee, He was a black outlaw, tough, nasty, defiant. The song written about him has taken many forms but at it’s heart the story was that Stackolee killed Billy about a $5 Stetson hat.
Wikipedia offers the following as a quote from the St. Louis Globe Democrat in 1895:
William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, 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, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. 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 withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. 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. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee.
The first version of the Stagger Lee song I ever heard was the popular Lloyd Price tune. Here’s Mr. Price singing it live…
Perhaps the meanest, nastiest, baddest incarnation of the legend was recorded by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on his 1996 record, Murder Ballads. Here they are performing it live. If you are sensitive to nasty language, just skip this video please.
Now let’s go back a bit and listen to Woody Guthrie’s 1944 version…
And even further back…. Frank Hutchison’s version can be found on the Harry Smith anthology I mentioned the other night. Bob Dylan recorded the song on World Gone Wrong that owes a lot to Hutchison’s version. Both are excellent.
There are so many versions of the song it’s difficult to choose. I’ll leave you with one more – recorded by Mississippi John Hurt in 1964.
I’ll leave you to explore Stagger Lee as performed by others if you are so inclined. When I say this song has been well recorded, here is a partial list of performers who took a stab at it:
Bill Haley and his Comets
The Isley Brothers
Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs
Ike and Tina Turner
Dave van Ronk
…there are many more. Back in my university days, I once collected enough versions to fill both sides of a cassette tape (remember those?).