“The Night Was Clear and The Moon Was Yellow”
Stagger Lee: The Truth, The Legend, and The Song
A Three-Act Play
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
10 p.m. Christmas Night
So far the evening had been quiet, damn near too quiet. Ask anyone who’s ever slung drinks for a living, they’ll tell you that holidays have a funny effect on people.
Maggie Lyons had saved all year. A few pennies here, an extra cleaning job for the white folks there. She had special ordered it, with his initials embroidered inside the brim, direct from the Stetson Hat Company in New York. Her husband Bill Lyons was “good people,” a local stevedore and a regular at the bar. When he strolled in that night wearing his Christmas present he was, for the first time in his life, the big dog on the porch.
Lee Shelton was in a bad way. Unlike Lyons, he had no loving wife back home. He did have a small stable of working girls, but even they had taken the night off to visit family and friends. When he wasn’t “Mackin,” he drove a carriage, and Christmas night meant:
Folks stayed home.
Which meant: No fares.
Which meant: No money.
All of this would have been tolerable if that guy hadn’t walked in with the finest Stetson he ever seen.
Shelton, as friends would later tell the reporter, enjoyed being “observed.”
Thanks to William Lyons, that was not happening.
Shelton and Lyons began to chat. At first all was well, but gradually, as the brandy hit and the discussion turned to politics, Shelton’s tongue began to sharpen and along with observations about local government, he began to comment about the hat. Maybe Shelton didn’t realize it had been a gift, maybe he didn’t care, but in short order he and Lyons were nose to nose.
Alcohol+Testosterone+ Christmas Night
The piano player would tell his grandkids that he thought some jokester had lit a firecracker until he saw the blood.
Shelton said something about the hat.
Lyons told the loudmouthed pimp to take it back.
Shelton shot him.
Clutching his abdomen, a stunned and dying Billy Lyons fell against the bar.
Stepping over a pool of blood, Shelton reached over, grabbed the Stetson, wished the bartender Merry Christmas, and called it a night.
Two days later Lyons was dead and Shelton arrested for manslaughter.
No one knows what became of the hat.
Back in 1895, black folks were just beginning to awaken from a three-hundred year nightmare. Unfortunately, those first promises of forty acres and a mule some thirty years ago at the end of the war had turned out to be just another lie told by the white folks, life was still pretty harsh and grim.
However, the end of the war and slavery did bring about some changes. Lots of newly freed slaves had had enough, and hit the road. A few found the promised land of sorts in the big cities, some disappeared and some wandered awhile and came back home. Among them were young musicians, mostly men, who had figured out playing a guitar certainly beat picking cotton.
These itinerant musicians were CNN, MTV, and HBO all in-one. They played music, brought the news, and told some good stories. Natural disasters, the latest fashions, even a bar fight made for good subject matter.
Around 1910, stories began to circulate about a Christmas shooting in East St. Louis. It would have been just another soon forgotten story/song except for one small detail.
“He shot Bill Lyons and then took that Stetson hat off right off his head.”
That kicked everything up a notch.
Not only had Lee Shelton committed a crime, but in taking the hat, he flaunted a disregard of how, in post-civil war America, “respectable” black folks were expected to act.
He was a murderer, but even worse, he was “uppity.”
Stagger Lee Part Two: Paul Bunyan Meets Shaft
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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