The Song and Myth of Stagger Lee
There is a song that has been recorded by James Brown, Nick Cave and Neil Diamond. The Clash, Pat Boone, Fats Domino and Bob Dylan. Duke Ellington, The Grateful Dead, Woody Guthrie, The Ventures, Ike & Tina Turner, Ma Rainey and Jerry Lee Lewis. Tom Jones did it. So did Beck, Mississippi John Hurt, the Black Keys and Elvis Presley.
Over 400 different artists have recorded this song since the first recording in 1923.
Margaret Walker and James Baldwin wrote poems from the song. It’s been refashioned as a musical, two novels, a short story, an award-winning graphic novel, Ph.D. dissertations, a pornographic feature film and a hard cider.
The song has lived as Ragtime, a Broadway showtune, Blues, Jazz, Honky Tonk, Country, 50s Rock and Roll, Ska, Folk, Surf, 70s punk, Heavy Metal, 90s punk, Rap. Even Hawaiian. The song's character lives large in Gangsta Rap.
Listen to it and we hear the evolution of modern music.
The song is "Stagger Lee."
The song tells the story of a murder. On Christmas Eve, 1895, in a St. Louis saloon, "Stag" Lee Shelton, a black pimp, shot William "Billy" Lyons. Eyewitnesses say Billy snatched Stag's Stetson hat. Boom, boom, boom, boom went Stag's forty-four. You don't mess with a man's hat.
The events of that night were immediately cast into song. Like a game of Chinese Whispers it swept through the South, following railway lines and paddle steamers of the Mississippi. Told and retold. Sung and resung. Changing a little bit each time. Reality slipped away and the myth was created.
"Stagolee was, undoubtedly and without question, the baddest nigger that ever lived. Stagolee was so bad that the flies wouldn't even fly around his head in the summertime, and snow wouldn't fall on his house in the winter."
– Julius Lester, "Black Folktales."
Like any great myth, the true origins are shrouded. We must delve beyond recorded history.
The history of the song tells many stories. It is an anthem of the dispossessed. It expresses fear of the scary black man, the evolution of modern music, culture theft from black to white, hero worship of the outlaw, the origins of a legendary character and the writing of a Myth.
No other song has so transcended its humble beginnings and been re-invented in so many genres, in so many media and by so many artists.
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