Keep your hands off a man’s hat. It’s a simple lesson that many a drunken tough guy has learned the hard way. Nothing sets another drunken tough guy off like having his hat snatched from his head. To a drunken tough guy, it’s a slap in the face, a spit in the eye, a kick in the balls. It’s out of bounds, over the line, foul play. Snatching a man’s crown from his cranium is like taking the land from under his feet, the air from his lungs. It can escalate an argument from a spate to an all out war. In 1895, one unfortunate drunken tough guy had to learn the hard way, and the aftermath became one of the greatest stories in American folklore and a musical tradition that is still evolving to this day. It’s the story of Stagger Lee, a man so bad that according to American folklorist Julius Lester, “the flies wouldn’t even fly around his head in the summertime, and snow wouldn’t fall on his house in the winter.” Keep your hands off that man’s hat.
When Billy Lyons snatched the Stetson hat off of his friend, “Stag” Lee Shelton’s head that fateful December night, a shot rang out, and the sound that it created has had a colossal impact on the shaping of American music and culture. It began as a simple argument between two rival St. Louis political organizers. As the drinks were poured, the argument escalated, culminating in the legendary sequence of events that would become known as the Ballad of Stagger Lee (or Stack-O-Lee, or any other number of translations). Billy crossed the line when he grabbed the hat off his opponent’s head, and Stag Lee was one carriage driving pimp who didn’t take kindly to line steppers. Without hesitation, he pulled out his .44 revolver, firing a single bullet into Billy’s chest. While Billy lay dying on the floor of the saloon, Stag coolly reached down, took back his Stetson and walked out of the bar and straight into history.
While he didn’t get far before his arrest, Stag’s story had legs, and it spread far and wide through word of mouth. Soon, Stag Lee became known throughout the South for his cold-blooded act, and as the story spread, the legend grew. The story was told and retold. With each retelling, it changed a little. It floated down the Mississippi. It rode the rails. It became a song, sung by the poor black workers on freight cars and river boats. Still, the story evolved. The first recording of the song was in 1923. Since then, it has covered dozens of genres, and been recorded by hundreds of artists the world over. A blues standard, Stagger Lee has been covered in country, rock, gangsta rap, jazz, and heavy metal, to name but a few. Famous artists who have taken on the story range from James Brown to Pat Boone, Ike and Tina Turner to the Clash, Elvis Presley to the Black Keys, Bob Dylan to Samuel L. Jackson.
The songs about Stagger Lee are as varied as the genres and artists who have taken him on. He’s been a gambler. He’s been heartbroken. He’s been cheated. He’s been a ladies’ man and he’s been a homosexual. He’s been kicked out of his house and he’s kicked the devil out of hell. He’s become a symbol for the poor black man. He’s become a legendary outlaw.
The real Stag Lee died in 1912. His political connections had led to his pardoning, in 1909, for the murder of Billy Lyons. By then, his legend was already well known throughout the South. He perpetuated the myths again in 1911, when he pistol whipped and killed a man while robbing his house. A year later, he was granted another pardon. This time, though, Stag would not come out on top. He never left the prison hospital, succumbing to tuberculosis.
On that legendary day in 1895, there were five similar murders in St. Louis. Neither “Stag” Lee Shelton, nor William Lyons were rich, famous, or in a position of any real power. However, the story of one man taking another’s hat struck a chord with the poor black workers of the South. These are the same poor workers responsible for the birth of the blues. Stag Lee has been along for the ride since the beginning. From blues to rock to soul to rap, his callous act has played a vital role in the development of modern music. Stagger Lee is, perhaps, the most legendary murderer in American history, though his story remains a mystery to most.