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The true story of Stagger Lee is something I’ve known a little about for years. Maybe I heard about it once because the “incident” took place in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. I’ve always been fond of Robert Hunter’s colorful version of the story, put to song by Jerry Garcia and performed by the Grateful Dead (some great live versions here). There are many other Stagger Lee songs, however, going back to the end of the 19th century, though no recordings seem to exist from before the 1920s.

I was working out the Dead’s version of the song on the guitar when I got curious about a couple of things and went down a proverbial rabbit hole. I’ll get into a few details about Hunter’s version of the story below, but all the entries in this long tradition in song are about how the title character killed a man at a bar (or in a cave, an alley, and maybe elsewhere).

The Facts of the Case

The true story is this: Lee Shelton had a dispute with one Billy Lyons at a bar named Clark’s in the “Deep Morgan” neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri. It happened on Christmas night of 1895 (not 1932, 1940, or 1948). It’s said to have started with a political argument, not a new phenomenon by any means! Shelton “grabbed Lyons’ derby and broke the form”. Lyons then snatched Shelton’s Stetson hat. Shelton demanded it back, and when Lyons refused, he hit Lyons over the head with the butt of his gun. Lyons pulled a knife and Shelton backed away, shooting Lyons in the abdomen. Shelton “cooly”picked up his hat, according to witnesses, left the bar, and strolled a few blocks to the home of a girlfriend, where he crashed for the night. He was arrested a few hours later, at around 3 a.m. on the 26th.

Lee Shelton was a carriage driver and rumored to be a pimp. He also worked as a political organizer for local democrats, whose “club” met at Clark’s saloon. Shelton had a record as a violent criminal, but he was nevertheless well-connected to powerful players on the local scene. He was also said to be quite a dandy, and he went by the alias of Stack Lee. One theory is that Shelton, a mulatto, intimated that he was the illegitimate son of the steamboat captain Stacker Lee, whose dad owned a line of riverboats. Lyons, an African American levee hand, also participated in politics, but at a republican “club” centered at another saloon a few blocks away from Clark’s, so the two men were rivals in some respects.

Shelton’s first trial ended in a hung jury. Later he was convicted to serve 25 years at the state penitentiary in Jefferson City, Mo. He was paroled in 1909 but sent back to prison in 1911 for another crime. He died of tuberculosis in the prison hospital in 1912, at the age of 47.

The Legend and Tradition

At least one song was written about Shelton while he was in jail awaiting his first trial for murder, Many others followed, including levee work songs and field calls. His legend caught on and became part of African American folklore, sometimes with Stagger Lee cast as the hero of the story, but more often as the bad guy. He was, however, mythologized as a powerful black man who did what he pleased, which was understandably appealing to a people who, by then, had been nominally free for 30 years but still suffered various forms of subjugation.

Robert Hunter’s version of Stagger Lee is consistent with several aspects of the sung tradition of the legend. But like all other versions with which I’m aware, Hunter’s story differs from the facts of the case in several ways. His is a unique imagining of a set of events in the immediate aftermath the shooting. Hunter performed his original version of the song himself, called “Delia DeLyon and Stagger Lee”. I hadn’t known until last week that Jerry Garcia “re-ordered” Hunter’s lyrics in composing the Dead’s music for the song. Garcia cut a few of Hunter’s lines and made some other small changes. Of course, when you actually start singing a tune, the words can fall out in new ways!

Hunter must have had a good understanding of the song’s tradition, or maybe he did some deep research. I’m impressed either way, but researching a topic like this is a lot easier now than it was in the 1970s. Some of Hunter’s lyrics contain strong echoes of earlier versions as well as other legendary songs, and they share a cadence in phrasing and even pieces of specific lines from earlier variations of Stagger Lee.

The Songs, and Hunter’s Song

Here are a few points about the legend of Stagger Lee in song, and particularly Hunter’s (and Garcia’s) version. These are listed in more or less random order. They are interesting to me in part because I think they reflect the knowledge and study Hunter brought to bear on his song-writing effort.

The Biggest Hit: Versions have been recorded by a number of great artists over the years, including Cab Calloway, James Brown, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Taj Mahal, Doc Watson, Bob Dylan, The Clash, Nick Cave, and many others. However, in 1958 Lloyd Price released a version of the song, and maybe the only version, that garnered broad popularity. His R&B tune is nothing like the Hunter/Garcia effort, but Price speaks of the moon, a dice game, the Stetson hat, and he refers to the victim Billy as “that poor boy”. Other versions reference Billy as a “poor boy” as well, including Hunter’s. But many traditional songs have used “poor boy” to describe victimized or sympathetic male characters, so this isn’t a big coincidence.

Mississippi John Hurt: Recorded in 1928, Hurt’s version is said to be the “standard”. His lyrics refer to the victim as Billy de Lyon, rather than Lyons. DeLyon is the name used by Hunter. I’m not sure Hurt was the first to use “de Lyon”, but his version was influential. Here is another part of Hurt’s lyrics:

Gentleman’s of the jury, what do you think of that?
Stack O’ Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat.”

And here’s Hunter:

Do you know what he shot him for? What do you make of that?
‘Cause Billy de Lyon threw the lucky dice. Won Stagger Lee’s Stetson hat

He’s a Bad Man! The refrain, “He’s a bad man, oh cruel Stagolee”, is repeated many times in Hurt’s early version. However, the refrain Hunter used at the end of each verse was simply “He’s a mad man”. Garcia must have removed Hunter’s “mad man” refrain from the Dead’s version, and it’s easy to see why it wouldn’t have worked as well there. But there’s still the line: “Stagger Lee is a mad man and he shot my Billy dead”.

Interestingly, Hunter’s original “Delia DeLyon and Stagger Lee” is sung to Hurt’s country blues melody (with a few differences – compare here and here). That means, in turn, that the same lyrical cadence is used in both Hurt’s and the Dead’s versions, despite completely different melodies.

Did He Pack a .45… Or a .44? Shelton apparently used a .44 Smith & Wessen revolver to kill Lyons, and almost all versions of the song refer to a .44. Perhaps Hunter simply liked the rhyme of “I won’t come back alive” with “He packs a .45.”

Cowardly Cops? Or Just Corrupt?: The corruption theme was common to many versions of the song. That might have been a product of black resentment in that era against a lackadaisical (and probably racist) attitude toward prosecuting crimes against blacks. Here are a few lines from the 1927 song by Little Harvey Hull and The Down Home Boys, casting Billy as a cop:

“How can it be,
You arrest a man that’s as bad as me,
But you won’t arrest Stack O’Lee?

Here’s a verse from one of the traditional versions reprinted at this site:

The woman asked the sheriff, said ‘How can this be?
You got all them bad men, but you can’t get Stagolee’
Deputies took their badges and they laid them on the shelf
‘If you want to get that bad man, you get him by yourself’

Those deputies sound scared! Either way, Hurt followed Hull in describing a cop who wouldn’t do his job:

Police officer, how can it be?
You can ‘rest everybody but cruel Stack O’ Lee”

These words will ring familiar to anyone who’s heard Hunter’s version. Hunter’s cop was definitely frightened. The lines from “The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics” are:

Baio, Baio, tell me how can this be?
You arrest the girls for turning tricks
but you’re scared of Staggerlee
Staggerlee is a madman and he shot my Billy dead
Baio you go get him or give the job to me

I should note that there are a few slight differences between the “Annotated” lyrics and those on dead.net.

Nearer My God To Thee: This reference appeared in a tale about a different St. Louis murder taking place in either 1890 or 1899, depending on the source. Like the Lyons shooting, it was remembered in song. Quite a few songs, as a matter of fact. Many were called Frankie and Albert, though many others were called Frankie and Johnny. Same story. Basically, Frankie killed her man Albert (Johnny) for cheating on her.

The following is from Leadbelly’s long 1939 version of Frankie and Albert, followed by a corresponding Hunter reference in Stagger Lee:

Little Frankie went down Broadway
As far as she could see
And all she could hear was a two-string bow
Playing, ‘Nearer, My God To Thee’…

And here’s Hunter:

Delia went a walkin’
Down on Singapore Street
Where a three-piece band on a corner played
‘Nearer, My God To Thee’…

Singapore Street? I thought perhaps Hunter placed the location of the story in San Francisco, but there is no evidence of a street by that name historically. Maybe elsewhere, but there is no Singapore Street in the U.S. at present.

Christmas Day or Eve? Hunter placed the murder on “X-mas Eve” (Garcia sang “Christmas Eve” at least once), but the shooting actually occurred on Christmas night at about 10 p.m.

I only found one other reference to Christmas Eve in the versions I checked out (not even close to half of the total), and I’m not sure it would have influenced Hunter. These lines are from a traditional version with lyrics at this site:

“Stagalee, Stagalee — you must-a been a sinner
Ev’ry- Christmas eve they give Stagalee a dinner”

The Dice Game: Many versions of the song have the dispute between Stagger Lee and Billy arising from a dice game. That seems to have been an embellishment prompted by a newspaper article that ran more than six months after the killing (and one day before Shelton’s first trial). It stated that Shelton and Lyons had been shooting craps, but there’s no evidence that dice were involved that night. Here is Paul Slade on that point:

In fact, there’s no mention of gambling in either the earlier newspaper reports or the inquest statements. Either the reporter responsible was genuinely confused, or he could not resist embellishing the story with one extra little colourful detail. Whatever its beginnings, the gambling is now an immovable part of the song”.

The Bucket of Blood: In 1967, a black inmate at the New York State Pen named “Big Stick” recited a “toast” that contained the following:

He walked through rain and he walked through mud, Till he came to a place called the Bucket of Blood.”

Apparently Nick Cave’s lyrics were taken in large part from the Big Stick toast, and that, in turn, was based on “traditional” versions going back to at least 1911.

The “Bucket of Blood” was another St.Louis bar in the 1890s where some versions of the song have incorrectly placed the shooting. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but the name of that bar has such a gratuitous ring that it seems reminiscent of Hunter’s lines:

She waded to De Lyon’s club through Billy De Lyon’s blood

Minor point, but Lyons‘ “club” actually met at a bar called Bridgewater’s, which was just a few blocks down the street from Clark’s. It would have been odd for her to look for Stagger Lee at Bridgewater’s in order to exact her revenge, but I’m getting picky!

The Gallows: Shelton was not sent to the gallows, but many versions have it that way, including Hunter’s (if we’re to presume that Delia’s wishes were honored).

Delia DeLyon: Billy Lyons was likely married, but not to anyone named Delia. However, there is another murder song called “Delia’s Gone” about a shooting that took place in Savannah, Georgia on Christmas Eve in 1900! I somehow doubt that Hunter’s choice of “Delia” was coincidental.

The Cop’s Name: The name of the lawman in Hunter’s version seemed like a curiosity to me. It’s written as “Baio” in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. “Bayou” is probably what most people imagine they hear, and I’ve seen it that way on guitar charts. I poked around to see if I could learn of any historical basis for that name. There are a few people here and there who’ve gone by the name of Bayou… it might be confined to the lower Mississippi Valley. Nowhere could I find any reference to that name in the true story of Stagger Lee or in any other versions of the song. Woodie Guthrie’s rendition has the line “The bayou calls”, which doesn’t seem pertinent. The Rulers recorded a song about Stagger Lee called “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”, later covered by The Clash, but that’s apparently coincidental because “Boyo” is a reference to Stagger Lee himself. So I couldn’t find a source for the name of the cop in Hunter’s story.

Wrap Up

The music of many Stagger Lee songs could be described as old country blues, but there have been ragtime, swing, R&B, folk, reggae, and punk versions as well, not to mention spoken “toasts”. I like Garcia’s Stagger Lee melody for several reasons. It’s catchy, and it also has an “old-timey” or even “rag-timey” feel, despite its electricity.

It’s a fascinating Christmas tale, but probably not one you’ll want to tell your children as you tuck them in next Christmas Eve! Of course, Hunter’s lyrics describe something well beyond the actual facts of the Stagger Lee case. Nevertheless, he respects much of the tradition common to so many versions of the story. Meanwhile, his focus on Delia’s passion, revenge, and righteousness in avenging Stagger Lee’s brutality gives a whole different flavor to the story.

In case I failed to provide links to some of the source articles I drew on, here’s a list:

Several articles by Patrick Blackman on Singout.org

The Baddest Man In Town”, by Eric McHenry

A Brief History of Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons”, by Matt Marshall

A Christmas Killing: Stagger Lee”, by Paul Slade

The murder ballad of ‘Stagger Lee’ created a gruesome legend”, by Jeff Terich