Thursday, December 06, 2007

Stagger Lee: The Story Continues

No doubt about it, “Stag” Lee Sheldon was a bad man, although probably not as bad as the legend that his dastardly deed spawned.

What makes the story of poor Billy Lyon’s murder worthy of such attention? Judging by the number of times that the song has been recorded and the incredible diversity of its popularity across just about every genre and style of American music, I’ve got to believe that there has to be something in the story that has universal appeal. The hero (or more appropriately, anti-hero) of the story is a vile, callous, murderer with absolutely no redeeming values. The story lacks the typical “good triumphs over evil” ending that concludes most murder ballads. In several versions, our anti-hero goes to Hell and even gives the Devil a hard time!

Author and radio producer, Tom Morgan, has kept a running tally of “Stagger Lee” songs. His complete list (available here) reveals the wide variety of musicians that have interpreted the story of “Stagger Lee.”

The story of “Stagger Lee” is just that – the story. As rider Jack pointed out in a comment, the tune is not a particularly interesting piece on its own. It is a fairly nondescript little melody by itself, but its simplicity allows each artist to interpret the song as they feel best suit the lyrics. The lyrics, the story of a callous, senseless murder, also allow for embellishment, as we have heard in the evolution and various interpretations.

No one knows the original composer of the song, but it would be safe to venture that it was written while the true life events were still fresh in memory. It is also pretty safe to say that every generation since 1895 has shaped the story to suit current styles, both musically and lyrically. It may be that the simplicity of the tune and the primeval aspect of the story are precisely the reason that this song has been recorded by over 200 artists representing just about every genre imaginable.

Today’s post will conclude our look at the story of “Stagger Lee”. It’s time for the Bus to head down the road to find the next story. I would love to be able to post all of the covers of “Stagger Lee” and its variants, but bandwidth and sanity would be in jeopardy with such a folly. Over the past week I have tried to post a small sampling of the diverse ways in which the story has been interpreted throughout the years. Today I’ve selected a few of the more contemporary versions of the song, from the 1960s right up to this year. Even in this small sample from a relatively short period there is an amazing variety of styles, interpretations, and lyrics.

Tommy Roe’s All-American clean cut pop version is followed by the early soul sounds of Wilson Pickett. The Grateful Dead give our song the jam band treatment in true Dead fashion. Samuel L. Jackson’s obscenity-filled rendition has introduced a new generation, raised on rap and hip hop, to the story. The UK-based Marseille Figs, a pop/post-punk outfit have done the same for their followers.

The story of Stagger Lee will live on for at least another generation.

Tommy Roe - Stagger Lee.mp3

Wilson Pickett - Stagger Lee.mp3

Grateful Dead - Stagger Lee.mp3

Pacific Gas & Electric - Staggolee.mp3

Samuel L. Jackson - Stack-O-Lee.mp3

Marseille Figs - Staggerlee.mp3

Thanks to riders, Chris and Tip for sharing a few tunes.

Y'all have a good weekend!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone offers constant praise of your musical selections and the history lessons. It's well deserved.

But, rest assured, the thought put into your matching a poignant photo to the day's post does not go unnoticed. To me, it's frosting on the cake.

December 07, 2007 8:22 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Great series! I first learned of the song from the Clash's "wrong 'em boyo" and then the popular Lloyd Price version. It's been great hearing all these other versions and learning the story. This kind of thing is why I love music blogs.

December 07, 2007 9:13 AM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Ed, you have truly done yeoman's work putting together this sequential offering of the many variations out there of 'Stag-O-Lee'. As a sorta/kinda amateur linguist, I enjoy seeing the variations in the title's spelling, too. Same for the pronunciation, which, I suspect, also varies by region. If you'll listen to the Lloyd Price version, you'll hear him use a distinct N'Awlins-ism when he sings "I was standin' / On the con'da" ...
'con'da' is just our way of saying 'corner', and I guess there are other places that also use this pronunciation, but I haven't heard it as widely used as I did when I lived in N'Awlins.

BTW, anonymous is right on about the photos, too ... they always do a great job of illustrating the concept ... love the one of Nick ... looks like the 'Prince of Tides' done been rode hard and is still waiting to be put away, wet OR dry ... Thanks again for such a diverse stylistic offering ... we now return to our regular program, already in progress ...

December 07, 2007 10:24 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Have you heard Nick Cave's version? It's pretty obscenity laced as well, and damned good! Not sure which CD it's on; I found an .mp3 somewhere online. I'll send it if you want, or track down the source.

December 07, 2007 11:00 AM  
Blogger kjk said...

ed! man! with one version a day, one could almost post a whole year on this one tune, alone! it more than blows away this tune, which, granted, has only been around for 20-some years.

my take on the the many spellings of "stag" is that it must have been passed down aurally for the most part. that might also explain the gap in recorded versions that you wrote of ... it has been continuously alive whether recorded or not ...

contemporary versions i am fond of: Uncle Earl, Foghorn String Band ...

December 08, 2007 9:30 PM  
Blogger Black Dog said...

Hey ED ! It's been hectic but have managed to catch up. Well, Stagger Lee has left a trail of dust. I haven't been able to get beyond the third generation - not until this evening. Perhaps the anti-hero and the resistance to authority is an Amerian touchstone. And perhaps Stagger Lee had redeeming qualities. History certainly has produced a trail of legitimate dueling before it became too easy and out of control.
But the third generation of Stagger Lee from Archibald down to the Thunderbirds with several passes back to Henry Grey - Wow ! The Hawaiian versions... By the time you get there one has heard the lyrics so many times slide-picking the melody like with a lot of music is only a pretext for the words. But the R & B versions, the Marseille Figs, I may be the only one to like the ukelele version- it's no use naming favorites the whole series is so very good. Great work Ed !

Many thanks for the kind mention on the OBBus.

all thoughts fly... k.

December 09, 2007 4:19 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Thanks for all of the kind words, folks. I’m glad y’all enjoyed this look at "Stagger Lee" as much as I did.

Anonymous – Thanks, I try to put as much thought into the photo as the music. I often wonder if it a wasted effort. I’m glad to hear someone notices.

Paul – Too often I assume that the riders on the Bus are eligible to join AARP. I should have posted the Clash’s “Wrong ‘em Boyo” as it seems to have introduced a generation to the song.

Richard – I too am interested in the regional dialects and colloquialisms found across North America. Having worked and lived in nearly every area of America, I find the distinct local pronunciations intriguing.

Greg – I have heard Cave’s version and you are right, it’s damned good.

Ken – Only time will tell if “99 Red Balloons” will have the staying power of “Stagger Lee.” I’ll agree that the song was most likely passed along aurally, and that a gap in recordings doesn’t mean a gap in performances.

K (Black Dog) – It’s interesting to hear an ex-pat take on the song. You are right; Americans have a long history of resisting authority, a trait we unfortunately seem to be losing.

December 09, 2007 6:48 PM  
Blogger Minerva said...

Hi Ed & folks, I too kinda liked the hawaiian version. Slight different (hawaiian) notes in places.
The whole time I'm listening to these variations, Dave Van Ronk's tune with his usual tumultuous finish lingers in my head.

There are several songs that one could explore. St. Louis Blues for instance. How 'bout it Ed. :) Or has it been too exhausting.

After I hear Hurt, Lipscome etc. doing different versions of a tune I get more amazed as each one replaces my previous favourite.

One such tune you wrote about was Pretty Polly, always known to me by the Lost City Ramblers, Dock Boggs was good then BF Shelton blew me away. Come go away with me .................... byeeeeeee

December 09, 2007 9:44 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Hi Lynne, great suggestion! I'll have to add "St. Louis Blues" to my list of songs to explore in the future.

December 09, 2007 9:55 PM  
Blogger Minerva said...

I found a vid of Furry Lewis on Utube doing St. Louis Blues, drop by my site.

December 10, 2007 6:38 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Great video, Lynne! The rest of y'all get on over to MUSICAL NOTES and check it out. Lynne's got a really fine version by Big Bill Broonzy there too.

December 10, 2007 9:41 PM  
Blogger Minerva said...

On a roll, here's Doc Watson's St Louis Blues too.

December 10, 2007 11:43 PM  
Blogger Chris in Oxford said...

Great post. I love the twisted Nick Cave version and the James Brown. Who knew there were so many covers...

I found you because we were both in the top blog rankings for last week with excellent point for quality but poor for popularity. Care to exchange links to try and bring that latter score up a bit?

All the best,


December 13, 2007 4:17 PM  

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