The historical Stagger Lee was Lee Shelton, a black pimp living in St Lousis Missouri in the late 19th century. He was nicknamed ‘Stag Lee’ or ‘Stack Lee’, with a variety of explanations being given: He was given the nickname because he ‘went stag’ (meaning he was without friends). He took the nickname from a well-known riverboat captain called ‘Stack Lee’; or, according to John and Alan Lomax, he took the name from a riverboat owned by the Lee family of Memphis called the ‘Stack Lee’, which was known for its on-board prostitution. He was well known locally as one of the ‘Macks’; a group of pimps who demanded attention through their flashy clothing and appearance. In addition to these activities, he was the captain of a black ‘Four Hundred Club’. This was a reputed ‘social club’ with a most dubious reputation.
On Christmas night in 1895, Shelton and his acquaintance William ‘Billy’ Lyons were drinking in the Bill Curtis Saloon. Lyons was also a member of St. Louis' underworld and may have been a political and business rival to Shelton. Eventually, the two men got into a dispute, during which Lyons took Shelton's Stetson hat. Subsequently, Shelton shot Lyons, recovered his hat, and left. Lyons died of his injuries, and Shelton was charged, tried and convicted of the murder in 1897. He was paroled in 1909 but returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery. He died in incarceration in 1912.
The crime quickly entered into American folklore and became the subject of song as well as folktales and toasts. The song's title comes from Shelton's nickname, ‘Stag Lee’ or ‘Stack Lee’. The name was quickly corrupted in the folk tradition.
I first became acquainted with this song during a period in the 1970s when I would often attend folk concerts held in pubs and local venues. Over several years, I was to read up on the oldest of folk songs, as I loved the history of the times told through song and verse. I had always been interested in the history of the British Isles; particularly the old stories and songs that sprang up within all manner of occupations such as Cornish tin miners, Yorkshire miners, fishermen of our sea villages and workers of the Industrial Revolution in textile mills, in steelworks and on the railways.
I recall a period when I became predominantly interested in songs that told true stories about the tragic killings and deaths of others. I wasn’t being particularly macabre; it was merely my interest in all manner of emotional violent expression that fascinated me more. Being the founder of ‘Anger Management’ during the early 1970s, uncontrolled aggressive behaviour and acts of involuntary violence always interested me. In addition, my growing interest in the method of ‘Behaviourism’ led me to be naturally interested in all manner of expressed aggression and acts of crime committed in the heat of the moment. I also had a natural and professional interest in ‘why’ they were done, and wherever possible, being able to identify the possible motive behind such action?
It was during this period when I discovered the song ‘Stagger Lee’ and the grizzly, true story that lay behind it.
Love and peace Bill xxx