I was going to do murder ballads for this week’s crime time, since that’s what’s coming up in the true crime course. But instead I’m just going to stick with one: Stagger Lee. It’s the story of one pimp shooting another over a dispute about a hat, in late 19th century St. Louis. The story became folklore and then song, and literally hundreds of versions have been recorded. An early version was Stack O Lee Blues, by Ma Rainey, with a young Louis Armstrong on cornet.
Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey – Stack O’Lee Blues
There’s more than a bit of Frankie and Johnny in there, but it just goes to show how the story gets adopted and adapted by different artists. Mississippi John Hurt paints Billy as an innocent victim, and has Stagger executed, neither of which are quite accurate.
‘Stack O’ Lee Blues’ Mississippi John Hurt (1928) Blues Legend (lyrics)
Wilson Pickett – Stagger Lee (lyrics)
That shows Stagger as a bad man, but bad in the sense that he won’t be cheated. So even though he’s a killer, he’s being celebrated, like he’s the original OG. Pacific Gas & Electric took him a step further
Pacific Gas & Electric – Staggolee (lyrics)
There Stagger’s not just bad, but the police are afraid to arrest him. He doesn’t run from the white folk. Even the hangman is scared of him. And he displaces the devil in hell. Robert Hunter and the Grateful Dead looked at another side of the story
Grateful Dead – Stagger Lee 12-31-78 (lyrics)
They made Billy’s widow the hero of the tale. Stagger’s still a bad man who has the police running scared, but she takes matters into her own hands and sends him to the gallows. Nick Cave took the song and gave it a vulgar twist
Nick Cave Stagger Lee (lyrics)
Cave took most of his lyrics from a version of the song that had been going around New York State prisons. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Badass delta bluesman RL Burnside also made Stagger a badass, and told the story in the first person
R.L. Burnside – Stack O’Lee and Billy Lyons
Wrong ‘Em Boyo – The Clash (lyrics)
Of course, They could have said killing was wrong, but at least they find cheating objectionable. In truth, the song is symbolic – the stetson hat symbolizes freedom, the cheating symbolizes the Jim Crow laws that denied freedom, and the bad man is admired for standing up for his freedom. That why the cheating is shown as the real crime in the song. And that’s it for this week’s crime time.
There’s a lot of scholarship on Stagger Lee. Greil Marcus devoted a chapter to it in Mystery Train. Journalist Paul Slade wrote quite a bit on Stagger Lee and several other murder ballads. And researcher James Hauser built a web site for his Stagger Lee Files.