An All-American Myth—and he’s a mean one.
Here is an icon—an archetype— that men have both celebrated and reviled in song, and have attempted to emulate ever since that bad night in 1895. On Christmas Eve in North St. Louis, “Stag” Lee Shelton shot down Billy Lyons in The Bill Curtis Saloon—or was it the night of the 27th in The Bucket Of Blood, or in The White Elephant…
— It was only 1 of 5 similar murders that day in St. Louis—
“The song spreads like a game of Chinese Whispers across the South as musicians hear it and play it back from memory with their own embellishments. The Stag Lee of the song is hung for the murder, sent off with an elaborate funeral, kicks the Devil from his throne and takes over Hell. Reality slipped away and the myth was created.” (Redhead Production, n.d.).
“At least one version of the song was sung as early as 1895 and written or recorded versions began showing up by 1910” (Dodson, 2003).
As cultural critic and historian Greil Marcus (1975) writes:
Somewhere, sometime, a murder took place: a man called Stack-a-lee—or Stacker Lee, Stagolee, or Staggerlee—shot a man called Billy Lyons—or Billy the Lion, or Billy the Liar. It is a story that black America has never tired of hearing and never stopped living out, like whites with their Westerns. Locked in the images of a thousand versions of the tale is an archetype that speaks to the fantasies of casual violence and violent sex, lust and hatred, ease and mastery, a fantasy of style and steppin’ high. At a deeper level it is a fantasy of no-limits for a people who live within a labyrinth of limits every day of their lives, and who can transgress them only among themselves. It is both a portrait of that tough and vital character that everyone would like to be, and just another pointless, tawdry dance of death. (1975, p.66)
That there pretty much sums up the seed behind every braggadocio hip hop & gangsta rap album I’ve ever heard.
The version below of this classic tale comes from Los Angeles band Pacific Gas & Electric, off their 3rd album, 1970’s Are You Ready.
I really dig the shuffle and swagger on this one, and the hints of dust in vocalist Charlie Allen’s voice. (I’m not even going to discuss the cover art).
————————–(CLICK TO LISTEN)
Like it? Buy it.
“what does the song say exactly? it says no man gains immortality thru public acclaim. truth is shadowy. in the pre-postindustrial age, victims of violence were allowed (in fact it was their duty) to be judges over their offenders—parents were punished for their children’s crimes (we’ve come a long way since then) the song says that a man’s hat is his crown. futurologists would insist it’s a matter of taste. they say ‘let’s sleep on it’ but theyre already living in the sanitarium. No Rights Without Duty is the name of the game & fame is a trick. playing for time is only horsing around. Stack’s in a cell, no wall phone. he is not some egotistical degraded existentialist dionysian idiot, neither does he represent any alternative lifestyle scam (give me a thousand acres of tractable land & all the gang members that exist & you’ll see the Authentic alternative lifestyle, the Agrarian one) Billy didn’t have an insurance plan, didn’t get airsick yet his ghost is more real & genuine than all the dead souls on the boob tube — a monumental epic of blunder & misunderstanding. a romance tale without the cupidity” (Dylan, 1993).
Dodson, A. P. (2003). A Song With a Story of Its Own: Scholar Cecil Brown’s search for the oft-sung exploits of Stagolee underscores the indelible power of our oral culture. Black Issues Book Review. 5(4), 60-61. Retrieved Dec. 18th, 2011 from Academic Search Complete
Dylan, B. (1993). About the songs. In World Gone Wrong (p. 2-3) [CD liner notes]. Columbia Records
Marcus, G. (1975). Mystery train (4TH ed.). New York: Penguin.
McCulloch, D., & Hendrix, S. (1996). Stagger Lee (Illus.). Image Comics
Redhead Production. (n.d.) History. Stagger Lee. Retrieved Dec. 18th, 2011 from http://www.staggerlee.com/pgs/history3.php
Traditional. (n.d.). Staggolee [recorded by Pacific Gas And Electric]. On Are You Ready [CD] Yellow Label / SPV. (1970)