Stagger Lee

I’m going to take a minute to ramble about an old blues song here. This isn’t anything like a comprehensive take since there must be dozens of versions if not hundreds. But just from five versions in my iTunes, you can see the song evolve in fascinating ways.

Here’s what stays the same: there’s a guy named… well, I’ll call him Stagger Lee because that looks sort of like a name even though it sounds nothing like one if you think about it. He kills a man named Billy. That’s it. The particulars of the crime, the motive, the who and where and even the when, and his fate – they all change.

In Mississippi John Hurt’s telling (“Stack O’Lee Blues,” 1928), Stagger Lee shoots and kills Billy de Lyons as he pleads for his life. The narrator describes it this way: Billy begged Stagger Lee to spare him because he has two babies and a “lovely” wife. Stagger shows no mercy, saying Billy stole his hat and shootig him to death with a .44. After a lot of humming the narrator re-frames the song as testimony in a trial (at the beginning, he’s pleading with the police). He values the hat at $5, which is $68 today, if you were curious, and his testimony pays off. Stagger Lee is hanged and everyone is glad he’s dead.

Hurt’s version also interests me because it sounds improvised. He hums a lot and sometimes starts his vocals in unusual places. I think Hurt cobbled together his lyrics based on other versions of the song he’d heard in the past, picking what he liked or remembered and changing other parts. So he ends up showing both the songs roots and its ongoing evolution.

Wilson Pickett (also “Stagger Lee,” 1967) adds a whole verse of “dark and stormy night” details: the narrator is out walking when he hears his bulldog bark, and he describes the full moon and the falling leaves. He comes upon Stagger Lee and Billy gambling in the park. He’s close enough to overhear the fight begin: Stagger Lee’s dice come up seven. That’s presented as a fact. What does Billy roll? Well, he “swore” that he threw eight. Is the narrator not sure Billy can be trusted? Does he know that Stagger Lee, for all his other faults, wouldn’t lie? Anyway Billy says he won Stagger Lee’s money and not a hat, but a “brand new Cadillac.” Not that he gets to enjoy them. Stagger Lee leaves, gets his gun, and confronts Billy at a bar with that .44. Billy says he has three children (up from two) and a “very sickly” wife (another sadness upgrade) but he’s swiftly killed. The actual shooting is described in a precise and memorable way: “He shot that boy so fast/the bullet went through Billy/And broke the bartender’s glass.” That appears in several versions of the song I think we’re meant to be outraged by Stagger Lee’s recklessness: he’s so blinded by rage that he can’t even do the decent thing and settle it outside, where he won’t hurt an innocent person.

In case you were confused about the moral of this song, Pickett’s version adds a whole verse warning you about gambling.

Taj Mahal (“Stagger Lee,” 1969) starts with a twist that sort of implies an unreliable narrator: “Could be on a rainy morning/Could be on a rainy night.” That wouldn’t be good testimony, now would it? According to the narrator, Billy says he won Stagger Lee’s money and his “great big” Stetson hat, so either Billy thinks he won their game fair and square or he’s bluffing. His confrontation with Stagger is described as a “great big fight,” which makes it sounds like Billy got his licks in and the contest might’ve been close to even. But all of a sudden Billy is begging for his life on account of his lovely wife and two children again. And the ending is gothic: at the scene of the murder “every foot” you step in Billy’s blood.

In the Dr. John version (“Stack-A-Lee,” 1972), the killer is blown up to mythic proportions, but we also get new details that make him more sympathetic. Billy dies in the very first line, and the police shoot Stagger Lee as he flees the scene. He dies, and the local women celebrate (why? was he just frightening to women, or worse?). And then things get wonderfully weird.

Stagger Lee goes to Hell and is supposed to “identify” Billy’s soul, whatever that means. It’s useless because there’s nothing left of him. Somehow he continues to bully Billy in the afterlife. In fact he’s so mean that the Devil abandons Hell and starts hanging around Earth, saying he wants no part of Stagger Lee. He’s at Greek myth proportions here.

But let’s back up, because something interesting happens earlier in this version. Stagger Lee stumbles into his mother’s house after he’s shot. He then gets a full verse to himself, and it’s the only time he’s not singing about murder. Instead, he cries out in pain:

He said ‘Mother, oh Mother

Won’t you turn me over slow?

I been capped in my left side

With a police .44.’

Does this awful killer live with his mother, maybe because nobody else can stand him? Is he that lonely? Or does she just happen to live near the place he drinks and gambles? That raises some questions about his upbringing. And notice that the weapon he used in several other versions of the song is turned around on him here.

Singers seem less and less taken with Billy and the facts of his death, and more in the sheer badness of Stagger Lee. In the early songs he’s a grouchy murderer with a petty motive. But as he becomes more evil, he becomes more interesting as a character. Writers and listeners wondered why he got that way. And what do they say about villains? They never believe they’re evil. They always have reasons, which means it’s interesting to imagine their viewpoints. If villains are more intriguing than heroes, the mythical, evil Stagger Lee was bound to be explored in new ways. That job fell to one of rock’s great champions of the underdog, The Clash (“Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” 1979).

The Clash version starts with Billy and Stagger Lee gambling. Again it’s implied that Billy might be cheating, and when he’s called on it, he says he’s going to stab Stagger in the back. Stagger Lee shoots Billy dead again, but instead of remarking on the killer’s cruelty, Joe Strummer sings “Stagger Lee come out on top” and asks why Billy would want to cheat. These are questions nobody else asked even when they implied maybe Billy was up to something. Here, he gets what’s coming to him and Stagger Lee is something new: a kind of working class hero, a man who follows a kind of masculine street code that Billy broke: kill if you must, but don’t cheat your brothers. He started as the bad guy in a murder ballad, but here, he’s a hero with justice behind him. He might even be a forerunner to other antiheroes of the street. After all, a man must have a code.

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