By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
VOL 5—NO.213. ST. LOUIS. SATURDAY MORNING. DECEMBER 28,1895—FIVE CENTS
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.
I got the date wrong in Part One, it actually happened on December 27.
Apparently, Mr. Sheldon could have benefited from some “bullying” workshops.
One hundred and two years later:
-The original column in the St. Louis paper, along with everything you could ever want to know about the man, the myth and even the location of the original bar (now an office building) is available at staggerlee.com
As usual, I began this series with no idea where it would end up. For the past month, I’ve listened to at least twenty versions of the song, recited the toasts to my editor Chip over the phone, and read half-dozen academic discussions of “The empowered black male in story and song.”
I’ve read essays, listened to the “Toast” version by Johnny Otis and around twenty versions of the song. In the first installment of this series I mentioned the significance of the hat. There was still a piece of the puzzle missing. Anyone who’s taken Journalism 101 knows the importance of the Ffour W’s.
Who- Lee Shel(d)on and Billy Lyons
What- A barroom shooting
Where: East St. Louis
However, added together they still didn’t answer why?
Why did the story of Stagger Lee become part of black and American Folk culture?
He’s a Bad Mother Shut Your Mouth
The Trickster, the anti-hero and the rebel, surface again and again in myth, literature, and mass media.
From Hermes to James Dean, from Randall P. McMurphy to John Shaft, there is a secret admiration for the one who defies the rules, and upsets the status quo.
Numerous sources cite the story of Stagger Lee first surfacing among dockworker and stevedores back around the turn of the century in the post-reconstruction era south.
Stop for a minute and consider the circumstances:
Manual labor, lousy pay, dangerous working conditions, an all-black, all-male work force.
At the end of another fourteen hour day, the guys are sitting in a tavern relaxing. There are no TVs, no video games, maybe a piano player. Someone begins to recount a story he heard from a cousin visiting from Arkansas. As the story progresses, the teller, maybe remembering an incident with the dock boss earlier that week, might have Stag laughing at the cops, then the judge, and maybe even the Devil himself. The bartender hears it, and noticing the positive reaction it gets from his customers, repeats it Friday afternoon to some factory workers. One of the factory workers goes to a funeral later that week. After the funeral there is the need for some diversion, and so he begins to spin the story told to him by the bartender. A distant cousin of the deceased, who also happens to play guitar, puts some music to some of the story and sings it at a barbeque in Mississippi later that year.
Although the locations might have differed, among blacks in the South in the latter years of the nineteenth century, there was a desperate need for stories that didn’t end in tragedy. Following the acts of 1876, any act of defiance, even as small as not stepping off the sidewalk to let whites pass, was often met with unspeakably harsh consequences. As the story of Stagger Lee grew, Lee Shelt(d)on became black America’s first outlaw hero, the Rebel, the original “Bad Boy.”
Staggerlee.com is worth a visit for the timeline on the History page alone. Here a just few excerpts from nine page timeline:
1903: Earliest known transcription of lyrics from Memphis but reportedly first heard in Colorado in 1899 or 1900.
1903: Another transcription of lyrics to the “Ballad of Stackerlee.” Sung from the perspective of a St. Louis prostitute working for him as her pimp.
The song spread like a game of Chinese Whispers across the South as musicians heard it and played it back from memory with their own embellishments. The Stag Lee of the song is hung for the murder, sent off with an elaborate funeral, kicks the Devil from his throne and takes over Hell.
1909, Thanksgiving: Lee Shelton released from prison, pardoned by Governor Joseph Wingate Folk.
1910, February: Miss Ella Fisher of Texas sends John Lomax, a pioneering musicologist and folklorist, eight stanzas of “The Ballad of Stagalee.” She writes to him, “This song is sung by the Negroes on the levee while they are loading and unloading the river freighters.”
A few pages later:
1960 – 1970
1960: Pat Boone covers Lloyd Price’s version but changes the chorus from “Go, Stagger Lee! Go!” to “Oh, Stagger Lee! Oh!” Pat, apparently, is not comfortable cheering on the badass black man.
1963: The Isley Brothers record it with a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar. They sing the song on live TV in the UK and create a scandal when Ron pulls a gun from his coat and mimes the shooting. (There is a YouTube link, and sure enough, Ronnie Islay waves a pistol around in the middle of the song, and the other two pantomime the actual shooting…)
Late 1960s: Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, identifies himself and other black leaders as Stagger Lee characters. Seale names a son after Stagger Lee.
At the end of the timeline, there is another link to all four hundred thirty-three known recorded versions of the song, including a neo-disco rendition by Neil Diamond.
Lee Shelton’s acquaintances’ described him as a man who enjoyed “being observed.” I think he got his wish.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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