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Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee, also known as Stagolee, Stack O'Lee, Stack-a-Lee and by several other spelling variants, was a American murderer whose tawdry crime was immortalized in a blues folksong.

Stagger Lee was apparently a person named Lee Sheldon. According to a story appearing in the St. Louis, Missouri 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.[1] (http://www3.clearlight.com/~acsa/stagroot.htm)

Lyons eventually died of his injuries. Sheldon was tried, eventually convicted, and served prison time for this crime. This otherwise unmemorable crime is remembered in a song.

One of the earliest recorded versions (1928) of the song is by Mississippi John Hurt, a Delta Blues musician. His lyrics were,

Police officer, how can it be?
You can arrest everybody but cruel Stagolee
That bad man, cruel Stagolee

Billy Lyons told Stagolee, "Please don't take my life
I got two baby children and a darling, loving wife"
That bad man, cruel Stagolee

"Would I care about your two babes and darling, loving wife?
You done stole my Stetson hat, I'm bound to take your life."
That bad man, cruel Stagolee

Stagolee stood on the gallows, head way up high
Twelve o'clock, they killed him, we were all glad to see him die
That bad man, cruel Stagolee

As in all such pieces, there are many (sometimes anachronistic) variants on the lyrics. One such variation, credited as "traditional," as originally recorded and performed by Lloyd Price, goes:

(intro) The night was clear, and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumblin' down. . .

I was standing on a corner
When I heard my bull dog bark
He was barking at two men
Who were gambling in the dark

It was Stagger Lee and Billy
Two men who gambled late
Stagger Lee threw a seven
Billy swore that he threw eight

Stagger Lee he told Billy
"I can't let you go with that
You won all o' my money
And my brand new Stetson hat."

Stagger Lee started off walking
Down that old railroad track
He turned and told Billy
"Don't be here when I come back"

Then old Stagger Lee, he went home
And he got his forty-four
He said "I'm going down to the barroom
To pay that debt I owe"

bridge: Go, Stagger Lee!

And Stagger Lee went in the barroom
And he stared across the barroom floor
He said, "You did me wrong, Billy"
And he pulled out his forty-four

"Oh, Stagger Lee," cried Billy
"Please don't take my life
I got three young children
And a very sickly wife"

Stagger Lee...He shot Billy
Oh, shot that poor boy so hard
The bullet went through Billy
And broke the bartender's bar.

The song has been recorded hundreds of times by a great variety of performers. A different version was a chart hit for Lloyd Price in 1959. The version best known by Price has somewhat different lyrics; Dick Clark[?] felt that the original tale of murder was too lowlife for his American Bandstand audience, and insisted that they be changed. Other performers who have recorded it include:

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