Saturday, June 9, 2012

Stagger Lee


Stagger Lee was a well-known song in the Mississippi Delta region at least by the early 1900s. The first known published version of the song was by folklorist John Lomax in 1910. The song is based on the murder of William "Billy" Lyons by Stagger Lee Shelton. The song was first recorded in 1924.

In 1959, Lloyd Price had a hit with the song. But Dick Clark decided that the lyrics were too controversial for his American Bandstand, so a second version was made in which there was no murder, just two men arguing. Lloyd Price's original version (with the murder) reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and is ranked #456 on Rolling Stone Magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The song has been recorded by over 400 artists. Among other artists who have recorded a version of the song are Mississippi John Hurt, the Grateful Dead, the Clash, Nick Cave, R.L. Burnside, Keb Mo, Pat Boone, James Brown, Neil Diamond, Fats Domino, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Jones, Beck, and Elvis Presley.

Margaret Walker and James Brown wrote poems using the song. It has also been used as the basis for novels, short stories, and a stage musical.

The story of Stagger Lee is of a murder which took place in a St. Louis saloon on Christmas Eve, 1895. Stag Lee Shelton was a black pimp, and he shot William "Billy" Lyons with a forty-four. Supposedly right before the killing, Williams had grabbed Shelton's hat from him, so Stagger Lee shot him dead.

The night was clear,
and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumblin' down.

I was standin' on the corner
When I heard my bull dog bark
He was barkin' at the two men
Who were gamblin' in the dark

It was Stagger Lee and Billy
Two men who gambled late
Stagger Lee threw a seven
Billy swore that he threw eight

"Stagger Lee," said Billy
"I can't let you go with that
"You have won all my money
And my brand-new Stetson hat

Stagger Lee went home
And he got his .44
He said, "I'm goin' to the ballroom
Just to pay that debt I owe

Go, Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee went to the ballroom
And he strolled across the ballroom floor
He said "You did me wrong, Billy
And he pulled his .44

"Stagger Lee," said Billy
"Oh, please don't take my life
"I've got three hungry children
And a very sickly wife"

Stagger Lee shot Billy
Oh, he shot that poor boy so hard
That a bullet went through Billy
And broke the bartender's bar Go, Stagger Lee,

Go, Stagger Lee. Go, Stagger Lee. 

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