Stagolee (Stackerlee) [Laws I15]
DESCRIPTION: Stagolee and Billy Lyons are playing cards; Lyons wins the hand and the stakes. An angry Stagolee shoots Lyons, is arrested, sentenced, and hanged. The various versions of the ballad expand on different parts of the story
EARLIEST DATE: 1903
KEYWORDS: homicide gambling prison execution
Mar 16, 1865 - Birth of Lee Shelton/Sheldon ("Stack Lee")
Dec 26, 1895 -"Stack" Lee murders William Lyons
Mar 11, 1912 - Death of "Stack" Lee
FOUND IN: US(Ap,MW,So,SE,SW)
REFERENCES (21 citations):
Laws I15, "Stagolee (Stackerlee)"
Leach-TheBalladBook, pp. 765-766, "Stagolee" (2 texts)
Friedman-Viking/PenguinBookOfFolkBallads, p. 381, "Stagolee (Stackerlee)" (2 texts)
Cray-EroticMuse, pp. 149-154, "Stackolee" (2 texts, 1 tune)
McNeil-SouthernFolkBalladsVol1, pp. 66-68, "Stagolee" (1 text, 1 tune)
Rosenbaum-FolkVisionsAndVoices, pp. 104-105, "Stagolee Was a Bully" (1 fragment, 1 tune)
Scarborough-OnTheTrailOfNegroFolkSongs, pp. 92-93, "Stagolee" (2 texts)
Lomax-FolkSongsOfNorthAmerica 306, "Stagolee" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lomax/Lomax-AmericanBalladsAndFolkSongs, pp. 93-99, "Stagolee" (2 texts, 1 tune)
Dunson/Raim/Asch-AnthologyOfAmericanFolkMusic, p. 54 "Stackalee" (1 text, 1 tune)
Spaeth-WeepSomeMoreMyLady, pp. 131-133, "Stackalee" (1 text)
Seeger-AmericanFavoriteBallads, p. 51, "Stagolee" (1 text, 1 tune)
Courlander-NegroFolkMusic, pp. 78-79, "(Stagolee)" (assorted fragments)
Wheeler-SteamboatinDays, pp. 100-102, "Stacker Lee #2" (1 text, 1 tune); also perhaps pp. 102-103, "Stacker Lee #3" (1 text, 1 tune, with references to Stacker Lee though the plot elements seem to have disappeared)
Burt-AmericanMurderBallads, pp. 202-203, "(Stackalee)" (1 text)
Finger-FrontierBallads, pp. 91-93, "Stackerlee" (1 text)
Cohen-AmericanFolkSongsARegionalEncyclopedia1, p. 377, "Stagolee" (1 text)
Darling-NewAmericanSongster, pp. 243-244, "Stackerlee" (1 text)
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 198, "Stagolee" (1 text)
DT 663, STAGLEE STAGLEE2 STAGLEE3*
ADDITIONAL: Paul Oliver, _Songsters & Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records_, Cambridge University Press, 1984, p. 239, "(Stack O'Lee)" (1 text with variant stanzas)
Archibald, "Stack-A-Lee Pt. 1" (Imperial 5068, 1950) (Pt. 2 is instrumental)
Senter Boyd [or Boyd Senter] "Original Stack O'Lee Blues" (OKeh 41115, 1928; Vocalion 03015, 1935)
Cab Calloway & his Orchestra, "Stack O'Lee Blues" (Banner 32378, 1932; rec. 1931)
John Cephas & Phil Wiggins, "Staggerlee (Stagolee)" (on ClassAfrAm)
Johnny Dodds, "Stack O'Lee Blues" (Decca 1676, 1938)
Cliff Edwards ('Ukulele Ike'), "Stack O' Lee, Part 1/Part2" (Columbia 1551-D, 1928; Columbia 1820-D, 1929; Clarion 5449-C/Harmony 1408-H/Velvet Tone 2509, 1932; Vocalion 03324, 1936)
Tennessee Ernie Ford w. Joe "Fingers" Carr, "Stack-O-Lee" (Capitol 1348 or 1349, c. 1951)
Fruit Jar Guzzlers, "Stack-O-Lee" (Paramount 3121/Broadway 8199, 1928; on RoughWays1, StuffDreams2)
Vera Hall, "Stagolee" (AFS 1323 A2, 1937)
Sol Hoopii Novelty Trio, "Stack O'Lee Blues" (Columbia 797-D, 1926) (Decca 2241, 1938) [instrumental versions of Cliff Edwards version]
Ivory Joe Hunter, "Stackolee" (AFS CYL-8, 1933)
Mississippi John Hurt, "Stack O'Lee Blues" (OKeh 8654, 1929; rec. 1928; on MJHurt01, MJHurt02); "Stackolee" (on MJHurt04)
Frank Hutchison, "Stackalee" (OKeh 45106, 1927; on AAFM1, GoodForWhatAilsYou)
Wallace "Pine Top" Johnson and Maudie Shirley with Jasper Love, "Stackalee and Billy Lyons" (on USMississippi01)
King Queen and Jack, "Stack-O-Lee Blues"(Gennett 6633/Champion 15605, 1928; Champion 40014, 1935)
Furry Lewis, "Billy Lyons and Stack O'Lee" (Vocalion 1132/Brunswick 80092, 1927; on StuffDreams2)
David Miller, "That Bad Man Stackolee" (Champion 15334/Herwin 75564/Challenge 327 [as Dan Kutter], 1927; on RoughWays2)
Uncle John Patterson & James Patterson, "Stagolee Was a Bully" (on FolkVisions2)
Wilson Pickett, "Stagger Lee" (Atlantic 45-2448, 1968)
Lloyd Price, "Stagger Lee" (Sparton 679-R, 1958)
New Lost City Ramblers, "Stackerlee" (on NLCR04)
[Gertrude] "Ma" Rainey, "Stack O'Lee Blues" (Paramount 12357, 1926 [rec. 1925])
Clive Reed, "Original Stack O Lee Blues" (Black Patti 8030, 1927; on StuffDreams1 [as Long 'Cleve' Reed & Little Harvey Hull])
Pete Seeger, "Stagolee" (on PeteSeeger18)
Will Starks, "Stackerlee" (AFS 6652 B2, 1942)
Art Thieme, "Stackerlee" (on Thieme05)
Evelyn Thompson, "Stack O'Lee Blues' (Vocalion 1083, 1927)
Waring's Pennsylvanians, "Stack O'Lee Blues" (Victor 19189, 1923)
Washingtonians, "Stack O'Lee Blues" (Harmony 601-H, 1928)
Frank Westphal & his Orchestra, "Stack O'Lee Bllues" Columbia 32-D, 1924; rec. 1923)
Herb Wiedoeft's Cinderella Orchestra, "Stack O'Lee Blues" (Brunswick 2660, 1924)
Frank Hutchison, "Stackalee No. 2" (OKeh 45106, 1927)
NOTES [1903 words]: On Dec. 29, 1895, William Lyons (levee hand) and Lee Sheldon (coach driver, nicknamed "Stag" Lee) were drinking together at a tavern in St. Louis, Missouri. A political discussion began; in the heat of the argument Lyons knocked off Sheldon's hat, and Sheldon promptly pulled a pistol and shot him dead. He was arrested and tried; the first trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted in a second trial and served time in prison, dying in 1916.
A St. Louis judge who has researched the case suggests that Sheldon had received a spell from a hoodoo woman giving him exceptional sexual potency. The talisman for that spell was his hat, so knocking it from his head was no ordinary insult.
It is noteworthy that the first recordings of this ballad (Waring, Westphal, Wiedoeft) are by popular dance bands, not blues or hillbilly artists. - PJS
Being a popular song based on a real event, this has attracted quite bit of literary attention. Polenberg, p. 264, particularly recommends two sources: Brown, Stagolee Shot Billy, cited below, and George M. Eberhart, "Stack Lee: The Man, The Music, and the Myth" (which he calls "superb") in Darlene Clark Hine and Ernestine Jenkins, editors, A Question of Manhood: A Reader in Black Men's History and Masculinity, Indiana University Press, 2001. Cecil Brown has another book, I, Stagolee. Polenberg also lists several web sites, including www.staggerlee.com and www.stagolee.org.
Polenberg's account is on pp. 28-37; it is easily accessible account and readable. It includes the death certificate of William Lyons. Brown, p. 24, also shows the death certificate -- which, interestingly, is not signed by the undertaker.
It appears that the usual spelling of "Stack" Lee's last name was "Shelton," not "Sheldon"; this is the spelling on both the Lyons death certificate and on Shelton's death certificate (shown on p. 35 of Brown). It's not clear how he got the nickname "Stack" -- or how this was distorted to "Stag," or indeed which nickname came first in song (although a newspaper referred to him as "Stag" Lee as as early as December 1895; Brown, p. 102. But the name "Stack" Lee was also in use at this time.)
Olivver, p. 238, says, "The origins of the Stack O'Lee narratives and ballads are unclear.... The original Stacker Lee was the son of Jim Lee, founder in 1866 of he celebrated Lee Lie of riverboats on the Mississippi. im Lee named his boats after his sons, so that Stacker Lee was also the name of the third of a fleet that eventually, by the turn of the century, numbered fourteen. Stacker Lee had been a cavalryman in the Confederate Army who fothered several sons of young black women, one of whom, according to Shields McIlwaine, was 'a short black fellow, a cabin bow on the Anchor Line . . . a black with a bad eye' and a killer, Stack Lee." But this hardly matches "Stack" Lee and the Billy Lyons murder.
Brown seeks symbolic meaning in the name. On p. 83, he mentions a possibility that Shelton belonged to a Black political organization (Democratic) called the "Stags," although he mentions both the riverboat and an aleged riverboat captain called "Stack Lee" (Brown, pp. 44-45) -- and "Stack" Lee might also mean someone who "stacked" a deck of cards (Brown, p. 103). The Stack Lee was one of the Lee Line of riverboats, which had a reputation for encouraging illicit sex (Brown, p. 45), so the nickname might either explain, or be explained by, "Stack" Lee's reputation as a pimp. Indeed, Brown, p. 36, compares it to the often-sexual pseudonyms adopted by rappers.
That's *if* Shelton was a pimp. Polenberg's only mention of Shelton's sexual prowess is a statement that he "may have been a pimp" (note the conditional). The story that he was a pimp may have arisen because he managed a "lid club," which is sometimes associated with prostitution (Brown, p. 38). Most of the few records about his work report him to have been a waiter or carriage driver or the like. Brown, p. 39, suggests that he often drove clients to brothels, and that his lid club perhaps helped manage prostitutes, but that isn't quite the same as being a pimp. Nonetheless, Brown, pp. 46-47, clearly regards him as a pimp and even describes the spaces he provided to the girls. He also suggests, p. 48, that Lee was popular and famous because he supplied them with a place to stay and work at a time when most Black prostitutes had to walk the streets.
He was small (apparently only about 120 pounds, based on Brown, p. 35, and five feet, seven and a half inches tall, according to Brown, p. 38) but exercised a lot (Brown, p. 43, says he was a member of the Four Hundred Club, which was organized "for the moral and physical culture of young colored men"). His left eye is said to have been crossed.
Ironically, witnesses reported that Shelton and Lyons were good friends and had never been known to fight before (Brown, p. 29). It sounds to me as if something might have been affecting Shelton's mental health and making him more combative at this time; having managed to post bond for the murder charge, there is a report he had to post bond for something else in June (Brown, p. 31).
There seems to be no question but that he killed Billy Lyons, but there was genuine dispute about whether he was provoked, and how; Henry Crump, who was present at the murder, gave conflicting testimony. Lee's first trial resulted in a hung jury (although the majority wanted to convict on either murder or manslaughter charges; Brown, p. 33); the lawyer who got him off, Nat Dryden, is mentioned in some of the Stagolee texts (Brown, p. 34). But Dryden was dead before Shelton's second trial, which resulted in a quick conviction. Lee was sentenced to 25 years in prison (and I leave it to you to guess what a prison block for black inmates was like in Missouri circa 1900. We know that he was at least once subjected to five lashes; Brown, p. 34).
You'd think a black man convicted of murder would be locked up and forgotten. But there were many appeals by local citizens for some sort of clemency. On November 25, 1909, he was given a conditional pardon (the condition being, naturally, that he stay clean). He failed to do so, beating and robbing a man in January 1911 (Brown, p. 35). He was promptly returned to prison, where the tuberculosis he had contracted in his first stay quickly turned terminal. He was given a medical parole in February 1912 but soon died.
Billy Lyons, according to Brown, p. 60, was born in Missouri in 1864. Brown, p. 61, has a (very poor) photo of his three children, although p. 61 says that he was not married. The three children are mentioned in some versions of the song, although often this is changed to two children.
A recent article discussing how the community viewed Stagolee is Jim Hauser's piece "Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?"; it is available at http://theafricanamericanfolklorist.com/2020/11/29/twoblackfreedomsongs/. Hauser offers an interesting opinion: "[C]onsidering the symbolic nature of the Stetson to African Americans, it's likely that many of them would have imagined Stagolee to be a black man and Billy a white man." I had not thought of this myself, but I consider it a very interesting point and recommend the discussion.
Carl Sandburg, incidentally, enjoyed this song so much that he occasionally signed letters "Stackerlee"; see Mitgang, p. 230.
According to Brown, pp. 1-18, the song and legend became a cultural phenomenon in the Black community. Black boys wanted to grow up to be Stagolee -- and to emulate his toughness and his reputed sexual prowess. This even though most of them had no information about who Stagolee was; it was long before anyone, including folklorists, connected Lee Shelton with Stagolee. The speed with which Stagolee became legend is simply amazing. On p. 122, Brown suggests that this was because the song was carried by Blacks working on riverboats.
Oliver, while not going as far as Brown, but does say "Stack O'Lee was a bad man, a ruthless killer, but in the songs he was regarded with awe, and a certain detachment" (p. 238).
I'm not sure I buy all of Brown's conclusions (in fact, I'm sure I don't buy them), but it really does seem as if Stagolee was a cultural phenomenon that simply isn't understood by the White community.
Brown describes the Stagolee legend as contributing to the rise of rap music, and it certainly sounds as if Shelton was fond of what we would now call "bling"; Brown, p. 23, describes him at the time of the Lyons shooting: he was wearing gold rings, using a gold-headed cane; he had mirrors on his shoes. I'm not sure I believe this, but it shows how the legend viewed him. And he did have the money to hire a fairly fancy lawyer (Brown, p. 26).
One wonders if all "Stagolee" songs are really the same. The first recorded version, Ma Rainey's (1923) is really just "Frankie and Johnny" with new words (Brown, pp. 144-145; Oliver, p. 241, thinks Rainey confused the two songs). The variation in versions is great; Brown, p. 69, says that "Stagolee has assumed at least seven 'subtype' forms throughout his evolution." Brown, pp. 105-106, has a report that the original Stagolee song was played in a slow ragtime tempo, and says that in the opinion of John David, it was ragtime pianist Tom Turpin (yes, Philip Jose Farmer fans, the guy from the "Riverworld" sequence) who created the first version of the song, based on "The Bully of the Town" [Laws I14]. Brown, p. 109, suggests that it was ragtime which converted "Stack Lee" to "Stack-a-Lee"; it's based on the ragtime habit of inserting a vowel syllable into words, e.g. "walk-a-ing" or the like.
Brown also comments on the significant of the *Stetson* hat (whereas Billy Lyons is sometimes said to have worn a derby). Brown cites sources (including Louis Armstrong) stating that, up to at least World War I, "the Stetson was a symbol of power and status among black males." He also claims (p. 144) that it wasn't just your standard cowboy hat; it is "the specially made Stetson that the macks wore in St. Louis." Thus it was particularly significant that Lyons went after Shelton's hat.
Not every account links Shelton's hat with his alleged sexual potency. In a legend from Chicago, Shelton had sold his had to the Devil for a hat that would always let him win at gambling. The legend further claimed that if Shelton lost his hat, he would lose his self-control (Brown says "head") also, resulting in his murder of Lyons (Brown, pp. 104-105).
There are a number of errors in various versions of this song. Some, according to Brown, p. 32, go back to the earliest newspaper reports on Lee's trial -- e.g. the July 14, 1896 Saint Louis Globe-Democrat claimed Lee and Lyons were shooting craps, which they were not, and said that Lyons died at once, which he did not. The judge's name was Harvey, not (e.g.) "Murphy." - RBW
From David Evans's liner notes to USMississippi01} "Maudie Shirley sings a version of a traditional ballad, 'Stackalee and Billy Lyons,' that originated in the late nineteenth century but her performance is influenced by one of several versions recorded in more recent years by Archibald (1950), Lloyd Price (1958), or Wilson Pickett (1967), all of them hits on the R&B charts." The Maudie Shirley vocal follows the Lloyd Price/Wilson Pickett version. - BS
Brown, p. 143, says that Bob Dylan's 1993 version was inspired by Frank Hutchinson's. - RBW
Last updated in version 6.1
- Brown: Cecil Brown, Stagolee Shot Billy, Harvard University Press, 2003
- Mitgang: Herbert Mitgang, editor, The Letters of Carl Sandburg, Harcort Brace & World, 1968
- Oliver: Paul Oliver, Songsters & Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records, Cambridge University Press, 1984
- Polenberg: Richard Polenberg: Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired Stagolee, John Henry, and Other Traditional American Folk Songs, Cornell University Press, 2015
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