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"Police officer, how can it be?
You can 'rest everybody but cruel Stack O' Lee
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee"
— Mississippi John Hurt, "Stack O' Lee Blues"

"Stagger Lee," also known as "Stack O' Lee," "Stackerlee," "Stagolee," etc.; is an American folk song. The song is a Murder Ballad about a badass named Stagger Lee, who murders a man named Billy.

The song dates back at least to the 1890's. The lyrics were first published in 1911, and the song was first recorded in 1923. Mississippi John Hurt's mellow blues version, titled "Stack O' Lee Blues" and recorded 1928, is considered a definitive early version. Lloyd Price's upbeat rhythm & blues version became a number one hit in 1958, solidifying the song's status as a standard.

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Versions of "Stagger Lee" have been recorded by a veritable who's who of popular music, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Grateful Dead, The Clash, Nick Cave, Beck, and The Black Keys.

The song appears to be loosely based on a murder that took place in 1895. On Christmas Day in St. Louis, "Stag" Lee Sheldon and William Lyons ("Billy"), who both had violent reputations, got into an argument. During the argument, Billy apparently took Stag's hat, prompting Stag to fatally shoot Billy.

The story is told differently in different versions of the song. Stagger Lee is always depicted as an extremely dangerous criminal, who is sometimes an Antihero and sometimes a villain. Stag and Billy's argument is often related to gambling, in which Billy may have cheated. Stag's hat, a Stetson, is often mentioned; it is either stolen or won by Billy. Some versions state that the authorities were too afraid of Stagger Lee to arrest him; in others, he is hanged, sometimes followed by an epilogue where he usurps hell from the Devil.

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Stagger Lee has entered American folklore as an Archetype of a black badass, who would influence Blaxploitation, GangstaRap and parts of the Black Power movement.


Tropes:

  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Billy in at least one version, pleads that Lee not shoot him because he has "three little children and a very sickly wife".
  • Anti-Hero: Despite his murderous ways, Stagger Lee is often an implicitly or explictly heroic figure. According to James P. Hauser, this is due to his defiance of white authority.
  • Archetype: Stagger Lee is one of the Scary Black Man/Anti-Hero variety (the latter more in the context of black rebellion against white authority than anything else).
  • Asshole Victim: Billy is often this, as he tries to either cheat or rob Stagger Lee.
  • Berserk Button: You don't take Stagger Lee's hat from him.
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  • Bowdlerise: Lloyd Price recorded a family-friendly version of the song for American Bandstand, in which Stagger Lee and Billy are two friends who fight over a woman and then make up.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: One particularly obscene version, originally taken down by a folk song collector from a New York prison inmate named "Big Stick" in 1967, and recorded by Johnny Otis' band Snatch and the Poontangs in 1969 and by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in 1995.
  • Cool Hat: Stagger Lee's Stetson hat. In some versions, the hat has magic powers, and Stag sold his soul to the Devil for it.
  • Darker and Edgier: Nick Cave's version, compared both to Lloyd Price's standard version, and to Johnny Otis' much more humorous take on the same lyrics. That said, some early versions are very bleak.
  • Deal with the Devil: In some versions, Stagger Lee's badassery is due to this.
  • Death by Adaptation: In many versions of the song, Stagger Lee is hanged, or shot by the police. The real Stag Lee Shelton was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the murder. He was eventually paroled, then imprisoned again, and he died in jail in 1912.
  • Depraved Homosexual: In the Nick Cave version, where Stag makes Billy give him a blowjob and then shoots him anyway.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Nick Cave often adds a verse when he performs this song live in which the Devil shows up to take Stagger Lee to Hell, whereupon Stag simply "puts four holes in his motherfuckin' head!" Badass doesn't even come close to describing that one.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Stagger Lee kills Billy for cheating in a game and/or stealing his hat. Lampshaded by Mississippi John Hurt:
    "Gentleman's of the jury, what do you think of that?
    Stack O' Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat"
  • Gambling Brawl: In many versions of the song, the dispute between Stagger Lee and Billy Lyon begins with an argument over a dice game. The versions vary over whether Billy was actually cheating or whether Stag was just a sore loser.
  • Hell Has New Management: Stagger Lee ends up as the new ruler of Hell in some versions. In live performances, Nick Cave sometimes adds a verse in live performances in which Stag doesn't even go to Hell: When the Devil comes to collect his soul, Stag simply shoots him.
  • Historical Badass Upgrade: Little is known about the real Stag Lee Shelton, but it's safe to assume that Stagger Lee's legendary badassery is slightly exaggerated in the song, especially in the versions where he takes on the Devil after killing Billy.
  • In the Style of...: The song has been recorded by over 400 artists in a wide range of genres, including blues, folk, rhythm & blues, funk, pop, ska, disco, and rock.
  • Karma Houdini: Stagger Lee, in versions where he escapes punishment. Billy's theft of his hat, on the other hand, never goes unpunished.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Lloyd Price's version sounds very cheerful for a song about a murder.
  • Murder Ballad: A classic example when it isn't bowdlerized (as in the version performed on ''American Bandstand'' by Lloyd Price, in which Stag and Billy simply argue then end up the best of friends.
  • Scary Black Man: The Trope Codifier, with a powerful presence in American culture to this day.
  • Sequel Song: Dr. John's version is set to the same tune as Lloyd Price's, and tells the second half of the traditional story that Price didn't have time for.
  • Sore Loser: Stag, in the gambling versions that don't make it clear that Billy was cheating.
  • Soul Brotha: One of the prototypes.
  • The Sociopath: Stagger Lee, in Nick Cave's version.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Many versions embellish or otherwise alter the historical record of "Stag" Lee Shelton's crime, whether it be the sanitized Lloyd Price version, or the sexually explicit, profane prison-derived lyrics Nick Cave employs.
  • Villain Protagonist: Stagger Lee, in versions where he is clearly the villain. Nick Cave's version is a notable example.

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