Who Was Stagger Lee?

It seems like every folk musician has recorded a version of Stagger Lee (or Stack A Lee, or Stagolee) at some point in their career. In my iTunes library alone I have a version by Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Lloyd Price, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Mississippi John Hurt, Wilson Pickett, Dr. John, and Frank Hutchison. My interest in this fella piqued again after listening to Josh Ritter’s take on the Stagger Lee story in “Folk Bloodbath”.

…anyway…

It turns out Stagger Lee, or Lee Shelton (March 16, 1865 – March 11, 1912), was a real guy. Shelton was a taxi-driver and a pimp from St. Louis, Missiouri who killed William “Billy” Lyons on Christmas Eve, 1895.

Here’s the story from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat:

William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee. 

The first published versions of the lyrics appeared in the Journal of American Folklore in 1911, yet the Stagger Lee legend really began to achieve popularity with the first recordings of the song in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians and Frank Westphal & His Regal Novelty Orchestra. It wasn’t until 1928, when Mississippi John Hurt recorded what is widely considered to be the classic version of the song, that Stackolee acheived it’s status as an essential part of the folk music canon.

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