Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“Stagolee” or “Staggerlee,” or “Stack-O-Lee,” or other variants, is the musical retelling of a cold-blooded murder. Some trace the song to roots in English murder ballads, but it seems pretty clear that the precipitating event that led to this much-recorded story was the killing of William Lyons by “Stag” Lee Shelton at the Bill Curtis Saloon in St. Louis at Christmas time in 1895. Lyons’ death certificate is reproduced above.
By all accounts, Shelton was a “bad man,” a pimp and gambler, and he and Lyons were at the saloon, drunk and arguing over politics or some such, when Lyons made what probably didn’t feel like a fatal mistake — he took Shelton’s Stetson hat, possibly after Shelton had crushed Lyons’ derby. Accordingly, Shelton shot him dead. Rather than lead to calls to ban handguns, this seemingly pedestrian, if horrific, event (it was apparently just one of 5 similar murders that day in St. Louis) sparked a legend that has been recorded more than 400 times, in virtually every style imaginable.
Why has this murder become legendary, while others are forgotten? Perhaps it’s the arbitrariness of shooting someone for taking your hat that has given this story its legs. Or maybe it simply was a story that randomly caught on, and became popular in the retelling.
By 1897, newspapers report performances of “Stack-a-Lee,” and transcriptions of lyrics for versions of the song appear right after the turn of the century, with the first version being published in 1911.
Long “Cleve” Reed & Little Harvey Hull – Original Stack O’ Lee Blues
From 1927, this early version doesn’t mention the Stetson hat at all. In fact, here Stack, still an unmistakably bad man, begs Billy not to kill him, because he has two children and a wife. Billy, who may be a policeman in this telling, isn’t sympathetic, and in the ensuing fight, Stack kills Billy on “one cold, dark stormy night.”
Frank Hutchison — Stackalee
Another version from 1927, this “Stackalee” appeared on The Anthology of American Folk Music, the compilation amassed by Harry Smith, which many credit as sparking the folk music revival of the 1950s. Bob Dylan was certainly influenced by these recordings, and in 1993, he covered Hutchison’s version on his album World Gone Wrong. Here, the fight is clearly about the “John B. Stetson hat,” and it is Billy seeking mercy because he has three children and a “weeping, loving wife.” Stag kills him anyway, and there is a coda describing Stag being haunted by Billy’s ghost in prison.
Beck – Stagolee
One of the most well-known versions of the song was recorded by Mississippi John Hurt in 1928. It is another “no Stetson” version, similar to the Reed/Hull recording above, but flips the begging from Stag to Billy, which makes sense, and enhances the reputation of Stag as a heartless killer. Beck’s faithful cover appears on a tribute album to Hurt, who recorded the song numerous times, often with different details.
Lloyd Price – Stagger Lee
Lloyd Price’s rocking version is probably the most popular. It was released in late 1958, and hit #1 on the Billboard charts, selling a million copies. This is the classic telling of the tale, including the fight over the hat, Billy seeking mercy because of his wife and children, and those beautiful opening lines. If ever there was a joyous version of a murder ballad, this is it.
The Clash – Wrong ‘em Boyo
In 1967, a Jamaican ska band, The Rulers, released “Wrong ‘em Boyo,” in which Stag’s killing of Billy is justified not because of a headgear related dispute, but because Billy cheated at gambling. This version was punked up by the Clash on one of the great albums of all time, London Calling, where it fit in well with the diverse influences that the band was tossing into their music by that point, particularly ska and reggae.
For much, much more about Stagolee, read this and this. If that isn’t enough, go here or go out and buy this. Finally, Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train has one of the best histories of the song, excerpted here.