Stagger Lee

I know Stagger Lee is some sort of major folklore figure, but all I can find about him is an assortment of songs. Who was the real Stagger Lee? What did he do to deserve his fame, besides shoot that guy? Did the killing really take place?


Stackalee was a big Negro bad man born on Market Street in St. Louis in 1861. He was born double-jointed and with a full set of teeth and red eyes.

Stackalee was named for the famous boat he worked on. He was a stoker or roustabout on the Mississippi-Ohio River packet Stacker Lee, which plied between Memphis, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Vicksburg. People spelled his name in a variety of ways, but mostly they called him “Stack.”

Stack was a fine musician. He played guitar and piano, and he was always moaning the blues or beating out some rag. Women loved his. When he hugged the girls he squeezed the breath out of them, and they liked that.

Stack always wore a Stetson hat, five-gallon size. Everybody says he sold his soul to the Devil in return for a magic spell on his favorite Stetson. He could get away with anything as long as he had it.

Stackalee was a gambler, a gunman, and a killer. One night he was in a card game in St. Louis, scraping in the money, and the Devil, disguised as a nice young man named Billy Lyons, stole the hat from the back of his chair and headed for a barrel house down the street, where he knew the real Billy was. Stack chased him down and shot Billy on sight.

The police hauled Stackalee off to jail. But they didn’t hang him. The judge sentenced him to a stretch of 75 years in Jefferson penitentiary, and there he is. He has served 34 years and has 41 still to go. So the Devil is still waiting.

– paraphrased from Maria Leach; RAINBOW BOOK OF AMERICAN FOLK TALES AND LEGENDS, World Publishing, 1958.

That’s jive, man, because

When the ladies, all heard /That Stack-a-Lee was dead
Some come dressed in orange colors /Some come dressed in red

(Mac Rebbenack, Dr. John’s Gumbo)

There are a host of legends, stories, poems and songs about Stagger Lee (or Stackolee, or other variations on that name), and there’s no reason you should accept one version over any other.

If the only version you know is the hit song by Lloyd Price, you got a very sanitized version of the legend. Many of the Stagger Lee stories/songs are truly obscene, as the character was REALLY bad! He drank, swore, gambled, fought, killed, seduced and dumped women, took whatever he wanted, and always got away with it. In some versions of the story, he wound up in prison. In others, he wound up dead. But even in the versions where he died, he STILL sometimes came out on top! In one version, he died and went to Heaven, but found it utterly boring, and CHOSE to go to Hell, where he intimidated Satan himself, and turned Hell into his own personal Paradise!

Stagger Lee didn’t have any redeeming features, but that’s probably EXACTLY what made him an appealing figure to black men for so long. To a slave, or ex-slave who was constantly living in fear that the Klan or some angry white man might kill him, just for the hell of it, the idea of a tough, swaggering black man who did as he pleased without ANY regard for the consequences was bound to sound pretty cool!

More jive.

Billy told Stagger Lee/Please don’t take my life.
I’ve got four little children/and a very sickly wife.

Mississippi John Hurt

Okay, have it your way.

Or have it THIS way:

1940 Xmas Eve with a full moon over town
Stagger Lee met Billy DeLyon
And he blew that poor boy down
Do you know what he shot him for?
What do you make of that?
'Cause Billy DeLyon threw lucky dice,
Won Stagger Lee’s Stetson hat…

– Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia

(BTW, nice job, astorian! What HE said, gang…)

Boy, I need to start listening to the Blues and such, as this makes me feel like a young spring-pop-culture-chicken, because I was thinking of The Clash:
Stagger Lee met Billy and they got down to gambling
Stagger Lee throwed seven–
Billy said that. . . he’d throwed eight
So Bill said, Hey Stagger! I’m gonna make my big attack
I’m gonna have to leave my knife. . . in your back./…/
Billy Boy has been shot
and Stagger Lee’s come out on top
Don’t you know it is wrong
to cheat the trying man
To cheat Stagger man

Here’s a good page on the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds website that has a lot of information about the legend and various blues versions of the song that have been done over the years. A quote from the site:

“The ballad is apparently based on the killing of one Billy Lyon by an already notorious badman named Lee. The fight or murder is variously explained, but it usually has something to do with Billy’s stealing, winning, or spitting on Stag’s milk-white Stetson Hat.”

Much more information at:

And here’s the complete lyrics of Cave’s version of the song:

It’s quite a bit more graphic than the ones I’ve seen mentioned in the thread so far. An example:

"He walked through rain and he walked through mud
Till he came to a place called the Bucket of Blood

He said, ‘Mr. Mother******, you must know who I am.’
Barkeep said, ‘No, and I don’t give a good god****.’

He said, ‘Well bartender, it’s plain to see,
I’m that bad mother****** named Stagger Lee.’"

There are also lyrics to three traditional versions of the song available at the site.

This was based on a real person. I found one site that has the newspaper article from 1895.