Stagger Lee: The Story Continues
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.
Thanks to riders, Chris and Tip for sharing a few tunes.
Y'all have a good weekend!