Stagger Lee

Only one song has been recorded by James Brown, Neil Diamond, The Clash, Bob Dylan, Fats Domino, Duke Ellington, The Grateful Dead, Ike & Tina Turner, Beck, and Elvis Presley. That song is “Stagger Lee.”


Over 420 different artists have recorded this song since the first recording in 1923.

Margaret Walker and James Baldwin wrote poems from the song. It’s been refashioned as a musical, two novels, a short story, an award-winning graphic novel, Ph.D. dissertations and, in 2008, a pornographic feature film.

The song has lived as Ragtime, a Broadway showtune, Blues, Jazz, Honky Tonk, Country, 50s Rock and Roll, Ska, Folk, Surf, 70s punk, Heavy Metal, 90s punk, Rap. Even Hawaiian. Listen to it and we hear the evolution of modern music.

The song is “Stagger Lee.”

The song tells the story of a murder. On Christmas Eve, 1895, in a St. Louis saloon, “Stag” Lee Shelton, a black pimp, shot William “Billy” Lyons. Eyewitnesses say Billy snatched Stag’s Stetson hat. Boom, boom, boom, boom went Stag’s forty-four. You don’t mess with a man’s hat.

The events of that night were immediately cast into song. Like a game of Chinese Whispers it swept through the South, following railway lines and paddle steamers of the Mississippi. Told and retold. Sung and re-sung. Changing a little bit each time. Reality slipped away and the myth was created.

The history of the song tells many stories. It is an anthem of the dispossessed. It expresses fear of the scary black man, the evolution of modern music, culture theft from black to white, hero worship of the outlaw, the origins of a legendary character and the writing of a Myth. No other song has so transcended its humble beginnings and been re-invented in so many genres, in so many media and by so many artists.

There has never been a documentary about this song. This is a documentary you can dance to.

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