Gaslight Mixtapes

The Evolution Of Stagger Lee

Words By: Sam Pethers & Roland Ellis | February 23rd, 2015

The Evolution Of Stagger Lee

"Stagger Lee" is a traditional American folk song that tells the story of the murder of Billy Lyons by African-American pimp, Stag Lee Shelton.

At Christmas time in 1895, Shelton and Lyons were drinking in a saloon in St Louis, Missouri. A fight broke out between the pair when Lyons stole Shelton's brand new Stetson hat. The fight ended with Lyons being shot and killed.

Just another Sunday afternoon session in St. Louis I would've thought. But as it turned out, the story of Lyons' murder entered American folklore through its consistent re-emergence and reinterpretation at the hands of some of the most acclaimed musicians of the last century.

Following Shelton's incarceration, the story was penned by an unknown author and has since been recorded (under a variety of titles) over 200 times.

This week's mixtape brings you ten definitive versions of "Stagger Lee". The story has changed somewhat over time—as you will hear when comparing Ma Rainey's 1925 version with Nick Cave's 1997 one. But the change and mutation of folk standards like "Stag" or "House of the Rising Sun" is, in large part, what makes them so interesting to chart over time. For instance, when you compare the expletive loaded darkness and perversion of Cave's "Stag" with the straightforward and upstanding nature of earlier versions, doesn't it seem to indicate a lot about the trajectory of the twentieth century? Ie., doesn't the history of "Stag" suggest that, as far as the public arena was concerned, we started out nobly espousing warnings of the turpitude that awaits when you head down a murderous path; and we ended the century more accustomed to basking in perverted and bloodlusting themes; we once sided with the victim, but it ended up being more tenable to get on board with the villain.

Strictly speaking, we may technically be violating the Gaslight M.O. here, in that, we're including a few versions of "Stag" that are not fifty years old yet. But we're justifying it by saying that the few newer versions provide necessary context to the evolution of the Stagger Lee story.

Now without further wankiness or adieu, take a listen to how 'ol "Stag" has warped and changed on us over time:


Ma Rainey - Stack O' Lee Blues

'The Mother of the Blues', Gertrude Ma Rainey, recorded "Stack O Lee Blues" in December 1925. Rainey tells the story from the perspective of Stack's wife: "He was my man, but he done me wrong".

Furry Lewis - Billy Lyons & Stack O' Lee

Furry Lewis recorded "Billy Lyons & Stack O Lee" in 1927. Lewis' version tells of how a bet between Stack & Billy went wrong.

The Evolution Of Stagger Lee Furry Lewis performing in the street in Memphis.

Frank Hutchinson - Stackolee

Frank Hutchinson recorded "Stackolee" in 1927. Bob Dylan reinterpreted Hutchinson's version for his 1992 album Good As I Been To You.

Mississippi John Hurt - Stack O' Lee

John Hurt recorded Stack O' Lee in 1928 for Okeh Records.

Fats Domino - Stack & Billy

Domino recorded "Stack & Billy" for Imperial Records in New Orleans, 1959.

Dave Van Ronk - Stackerlee

Van Ronk recorded Furry Lewis' version of the story in 1962. It was released on his compilation album Inside Dave Van Ronk in 1989.

Pacific Gas & Electric - Staggolee

Pacific Gas & Electric included "Stagolee" on their 1972 album Are You Ready. It was included on the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino's film Death Proof.

Beck - Stagolee

Beck recorded his version of "Stagolee" in 1996 at Sun Studios. Beck rewrote the track as if Stack were around in the 1990s. He suggested that Stack's reaction would have been something like, "Whoa, this is disturbing shit."

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Stagger Lee

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds recorded "Stagger Lee" for their 1997 album Murder Ballads.

The Evolution Of Stagger Lee Nick Cave

The Black Keys - Stack Shot Billy

The Black Keys recorded "Stack Shot Billy" for their 2004 album Rubber Factory. It was recorded in an abandoned tyre-manufacturing factory in the group's hometown of Akron, Ohio.

Gaslight Records is a way of reviving and reliving the music of 50 Years Ago. Unlike any other music site, everything you'll hear or read about on Gaslight Records will be sourced from music that is at least 50 years old.

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