That Bad Mofo Named Stagger Lee

I read a graphic novel called Stagger Lee this week. On one level the book attempts to tell the story of a man who became a reoccurring character in American folklore. What really makes it interesting though is that it also traces the development of the legend through song, showing how the story changed decade after decade as hundreds of different musicians made it their own. The root of the story is a shooting that took place in St. Louis in the 1890s. A man named Lee Shelton shot one Billy Lyons, supposedly over a Stetson hat. Some nameless musician wrote a song about it and it spread from city to city. Songs about Stagger Lee, Stag O Lee, Stackolee, and so one are all about this same guy, and over the years the countless variations of the story have appeared. In most Stag shoots Billy but in some it’s the other way round. Sometimes Stag meets the devil, in others he’s hung. Almost all versions agree that he was a bad, bad man. The first Stagger Lee song I heard was The Clash’s Wrong ‘em Boyo, though my favorite is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Stagger Lee. The graphic novel, by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix, is a clever mix of history, speculation, and fiction. Although focusing on Stag and Billy, it also tells several other murder stories that become folkloric songs. All of them took in St. Louis in the same neighborhood and within five years of each other. If you have any interest in American folklore, music, or history, I recommend checking out Stagger Lee.

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