The Murder of Billy Lyons:
Reopening the Case
I first posted about the many versions of “Stagger Lee” last January. (For the original post, click here.) That post drew quite a bit of interest, including a comment from writer, Derek McCulloch, author of Stagger Lee. McCulloch and illustrator, Shepherd Hendrix, have woven the historical facts of the event with close scrutiny of the song’s various versions, accompanied by wonderful artwork to create a thoroughly enjoyable book (available at Amazon.com.)
The story has been told in song for over eighty years and by an incredible variety of artists in a wide assortment of styles, genres, and even titles. I had intended to return to the subject of “Stagger Lee”, if only to look at some of the diverse ways that the story has been interpreted. Last week I got an email from a recent rider on the Bus inquiring about some of the versions that I had uncovered when I put that original post together. Chris told me that he was putting together a collection of the versions of “Stagger Lee” and offered a version that I was not familiar with. Chris’ inquiry and generous offer renewed my interest in the song.
As reported in THE ST. LOUIS GLOBE DEMOCRAT (1895) (see original post for full text), and in the various versions of the song, 'Stag' Lee Sheldon shot and killed Billy Lyons over a $5 Stetson hat. In these days of drive-by-shootings and other senseless violence we hardly notice the absurdity of the cause of Billy Lyons death, but in 1895 this must have seemed a trivial reason to take someone’s life. The banality of the excuse for murdering Billy coupled with the cold callousness of 'Stag' Lee actually committing the act may account for the song and its continued usage and popularity
I’ll leave the forensic psychology for someone qualified in such matters, but I will reopen the case to examine a few of the various versions that the song ahs taken on over the years. Let’s start at the beginning...
The first version of the song, that I am aware of, was recorded in Chicago in 1927 by two musicians from the Delta who recorded as The Downhome Boys. Several months later it was recorded by Furry Lewis (I am still searching for my copy, I know I have it on vinyl somewhere.) Also in 1927, West Virginia coal miner and musician, Frank Hutchison preserved his version on record. Two years later, in 1929, the soft voiced Mississippi John Hurt recorded his version, then for nearly twenty years the song was not heard on record again.