Murder and mayhem have been the subject of many popular songs over the years, though more often than not, the tales around which such songs revolve tend to be wholly fictional. Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno, and the events related in such famous story songs as “El Paso” and “I Shot The Sheriff” never actually took place. The same cannot be said, however, about “Stagger Lee”—a song that has drifted from the facts somewhat over the course of its many lives in the last 100-plus years, but a song inspired by an actual murder that took place on December 27, 1895, in a St. Louis, Missouri, barroom argument involving a man named Billy and another named “Stag” Lee.
Under the headline “Shot in Curtis’s Place,” the story that ran in the next day’s edition of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat began, “William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand… was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis… by Lee Sheldon, also colored.” According to the Globe-Democrat’s account, Billy Lyons and “Stag” Lee Sheldon “had been drinking and were in exuberant spirits” when an argument over “politics” boiled over, and Lyons “snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head.” While subsequent musical renditions of this story would depict the dispute as one over gambling, they would preserve the key detail of “Stag” Lee Sheldon’s headwear and of his matter-of-fact response to losing it: “Sheldon drew 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.”
In his 2003 book Stagolee Shot Billy, based on his earlier doctoral dissertation on the subject, scholar Cecil Brown recounts the story of how the real “Stag” Lee became an iconic figure in African American folklore and how his story became the subject of various musical renderings “from the [age of the] steamboat to the electronic age in the American 21st century.” The most famous of those musical renditions were 1928’s “Stack O’ Lee Blues” by Mississippi John Hurt and 1959’s “Stagger Lee,” an unlikely #1 pop hit for Lloyd Price. Versions of the story have also appeared, however, in songs by artists as wide-ranging as Woody Guthrie, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, James Brown, The Clash, the Grateful Dead and Nick Cave.