The Legend of Stagger Lee

The following article is for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as scholarly research or as a final authority on the subject. 

Welcome to Friday’s Bitter End.  This week, we’ll discuss a true crime that evolved into folklore through song.  The song has been recorded in almost every musical genre and reinterpreted in many ways. Get ready to talk about the true crime “Stag” Lee Shelton committed, and the music it inspired.

I want to start out by saying this is a big, big topic.  The best I can do here is give you a thumbnail.  But it is interesting.  I encourage you to peruse my sources at your leisure.

The True Crime

December 27, 1895

St. Louis, Missouri

To the best of my calculations, this would have been a Friday.  So it was Friday night at the Bill Curtis Saloon.

“Stag” Lee Shelton and William Lyons got into a heated argument.

Some sources say the argument started over politics. Others say it was over a gambling debt.  It is commonly agreed that the argument’s climax occurred when Lyons snatched Shelton’s Stetson hat off his head and refused to give it back.

Don’t Mess With Another Man’s Hat

Shelton shot Lyons in the abdomen.  After Shelton shot Lyons, he leaned over the injured man, grabbed the prized Stetson, and calmly walked away.

“Stag” Lee Shelton was arrested and held on a $4000 bond ($100,000 in today’s money).  It is interesting to note that “Stag” Lee’s bond was paid by a pawnbroker.  Shelton was eventually indicted for first degree murder.

[Fun Factoids: Some accounts I read while researching this article said that “Stag” Lee Shelton was a member of an elite group of pimps.]

In Shelton’s first trial, the jury could not come to a decision.  The second trial, however, resulted in a 25 year sentence.  In 1909, Missouri’s Governor pardoned Shelton, and he went free.

The Birth of a Legend

By 1911, Shelton was back in prison on another murder charge.  He died of tuberculosis that same year, still in prison.

Had it not been for the song, “Stag” Lee Shelton would have faded into obscurity. Instead, he evolved into a legend, the epitome of a BMF.

[Note: To learn what BMF stands for, click here.  I stole it from Pulp Fiction.  If you don’t want to click, substitute badass for BMF. To buy a wallet like Samuel L. Jackson’s BMF wallet, click here.)

Bully of the Town

In the late 1800s, there was a popular southern standard called “Bully of the Town.”  The song is reputed to have been a challenge raised by traveling Mississippi river men who wanted to fight the locals.

[Quick note: During this era, it was apparently customary for each singer to make a song like “Bully of the Town” his own, refining the lyrics to convey a customized meaning.]

“Bully of the Town”–or versions of it–became a popular brothel song.  From there, it traveled to Broadway, where it was sung in a musical called The Widow Jones.

Here are a few links to lyrics I’ve found for “Bully of the Town.” I think this is probably the same song, but I might be wrong.  Click here.  And here.

Stagger Lee

The shooting committed by “Stag” Lee Shelton became the new basis for the lyrics of “Bully of the Town.” The evolving song soon became known by names such as “Stack-a-Lee,” “The Ballad of Stagalee,” and “Skeeg-a-Lee Blues.” There was even a Hawaiian version.

As I mentioned in the introduction to this blog post, a diverse group of musicians have recorded versions of this song.  Look at this list:

  • Ma Rainey
  • Duke Ellington
  • Mississippi John Hurt (the definitive version — click here to hear it)
  • Woody Guthrie
  • Pat Boone
  • The Isley Brothers (with a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar)
  • Ike and Tina Turner
  • The Clash
  • The Grateful Dead
  • Neil Diamond
  • Bob Dylan
  • Huey Lewis and the News

And many more…

My favorite version of this ever evolving song is “Stagger Lee” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

This song  is on the 1996 album Murder Ballads. Nick adapted the lyrics from a collection of folk poetry called The Life: The Lore and Folk Poetry of the Black Hustler, which was gathered from New York Prisons in the 50s and 60s.

If you looked at the lyrics of “Bully of the Town” and maybe listened to early versions of the “Stag” Lee Shelton song, you’ll see the lyrics have changed quite a bit.  In Cave’s version, Stag Lee Shelton is almost mythic in his BMFness.

And so the legend lives on.  I do love this kind of thing.


The Song and Myth of Stagger Lee

The Stagger Lee Files

The Story of Stagger Lee (go to this for a free PDF booklet of Stagger Lee’s story)

If you’re really into this, a book (that I have not read) on this topic is available: Click here to check it out.

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