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.