Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Murder of Billy Lyons:
Reopening the Case

In the scheme of things, the murder of twenty-five year old levee hand, Billy Lyons, could have been written off as just another unfortunate act of violence. But, for reasons unknown, that relatively insignificant barroom brawl in St. Louis in 1895 would become one of the most sung-about murders in American history.

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

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.

The Down Home Boys – (Original) Stack O'Lee Blues.mp3

Frank Hutchison - Stackalee.mp3

Mississippi John Hurt - Stack O'Lee Blues.mp3


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Ed. 'When you lose your money learn to lose'. Yeh, a great, my first hearing was from Dylan & my fav. Ronk. I'm presently searching thru collection and putting together some 'House of the Rising Sun' versions, including LEADBELLY & Pete Seeger amongst my favs. not to keen on the song, but it was the first one I learnt my basic chords from. 'In my Time of Dying' is also a good one and have a lovely version from Josh White and Ronk.
When I get my record player, after xmas, I hope to continue looking thru old Newports etc.
PS I have a version of Stagolee from Australian's own Col Joye it is absolutely atrocious. It's so bad it's good. I think my name might come up as Minerva from now on, love lynne

December 02, 2007 10:17 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Hi Lynne, Stop by over the next few days, I'll be posting different versions of "Stagger Lee".

"House of the Rising Sun", eh? Well, it sounds like you are off to a good start. If there is anything I may be able to help you find, please let me know.

December 02, 2007 10:34 PM  
Blogger Minerva said...

I learnt House of the Rising Sun in '64 so my playing has improved somewhat from then :)
I forgot to mention St. Louis blues there are some terrific versions of that, including Fats Waller. I crave any Ronk. Thanks to your posts I'll be buying Dock Bloggs this week, it'll take a few weeks to be ordered in. I have order Ronk's 2nd and 3rd album
Love Hurt's Frankie & One Cent Dime, I have these though. Eli Framer of your blog as become a fav. of mine now AND BF Shelton.
Would love to get a version of Karl Denver's Pastures of Plenty, have Seeger's and Guthries.
PS I do stop over to your site everyday, I love it. Don't know why I came up as anonymous.

December 03, 2007 2:24 AM  
Blogger Jen said...

Hey Ed,

Great post. May want to check out the short post I did on a recent version of the song here. Awesome to know the history of the song behind it; I told the boyfriend, he's quite stoked.


December 03, 2007 9:44 AM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Ed, it's funny how some threads seem to be a 'constant' down thru the ages (or, in this case, years) ... the shooting of Billy over a $5 Stetson hat in 1895 isn't really all that different (in terms of real dollars) from a kid today who gets blown away for a starter jacket or a new pair o' Nikes ... thugs is thugs is thugs ... But, that being said, the 'stickiness' of the song and its continuing popularity has to be linked to an event people not only identify with, but that they remember and embellish ... It's not an accident that the troubador was the first 'newspaper' of his time - and the 'oral tradition' is still alive and well, as evidenced by the limitless versions of 'Stagger Lee' we have to pick from ... Have you heard the version done by PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric)? Killer stuff. Oops. No pun intended ... well, yeah, I guess there was, actually ...

December 03, 2007 2:16 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Hi Jen, I've heard Samuel L. Jackson's version and I'd say we had the same reaction.

December 03, 2007 7:50 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Richard, I suppose you are right, there is little difference between a $5 Stetson and pair of Nikes. Stay tuned for some of the more obscure versions of Stagger Lee that I have found. Oh yeah, PG&E is in the mix.

December 03, 2007 7:54 PM  
Blogger Katie said...

The first time I heard this song was on the soundtrack for the movie Shag--two of the main characters shag to Lloyd Price's version--and I have loved it ever since. I had no idea it had been around so long. I did know, however, that there was at least one more version: when I was a freshman in college, some guy said he "wrote a poem" and proceeded to (first) read off a piece of paper and then (second) just rap from memory a story about Stagger Lee. As soon as I heard Stagger Lee I was like, this kid's a joker.

Thanks for an awesome post!

December 03, 2007 9:28 PM  
Blogger Katie said...

i searched lloyd price's version and found this:

December 03, 2007 9:50 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Hi Katie, OMG, I hope you don't mean that the charachters were shagging in the English sense of the word!

The story behind the two versions from Lloyd Price is an interesting one. I suppose I should have mentioned it.

While Lloyd Price's record was still climbing the charts, Dick Clark invited him to perform the song on his popular American Bandstand TV show, but Clark was not comfortable exposing young teens to such violent lyrics. He insisted that Price re-record the song with revised lyrics. Price bowed to Clark’s demands, knowing that an appearance on American Bandstand would mean an incredible boost in record sales. Not the first example of censorship in pop music, nor the first example of an artist compromising his work for monetary gain.

December 04, 2007 7:08 AM  

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