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January 19, 2007

Book Notes - Derek McCulloch ("Stagger Lee")

Comic Book Commentary called Stagger Lee the best graphic novel of 2006, and the book has earned praise from Warren Ellis, Greil Marcus and others for its meticulous historical research and deft fictional handling of the true story that has inspired thousands of singers. Skillfully drawn by Shepherd Hendrix and written by Derek McCulloch, the book is historical fiction done exceptionally well.

In his own words, here is Derek McCulloch's Book Notes entry for his graphic novel, Stagger Lee:

I have no idea how unusual this is (if at all), but my book really did come with a soundtrack. The graphic novel Stagger Lee tells the story of a real-life murder that became the subject of folklore. “Stag” Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons in 1895, and by the time the body was cold there were already songs commemorating the event. In the 111 years since, there have been scores of versions of these songs, telling versions of the story that vary widely according to prejudices and preoccupations of the teller. Some elements stuck from beginning to end: Shelton and Lyons really did argue over a hat, as most of the songs say, and the murder really did take place on Christmas night. More typically, though, details were added, subtracted, mixed and matched, rearranged, or updated as necessary to tell each succeeding version.
When setting out to write this story, the logical thing for me to do was to collect as many different versions of the song as I could lay hands on. I’m still collecting versions today, but by the time I was ready to write my book, I had 36 versions, filling up two full hours on a pair of CDs. I listened to these two discs continuously as I wrote. When I was finished, I passed the script and the discs on to my collaborator, Shepherd Hendrix, who listened to them as he drew. These are the songs from Disc One of the literal soundtrack for our work on this book.

Stagger Lee – Lloyd Price: Lloyd Price has done more than anyone to keep the legend of Stagger Lee alive in popular culture. In 1959, he pulled together elements from different versions, upped the tempo, and most crucially added the “Go Stagger Lee!” chorus that transformed what was often a mournful cautionary tale into a gleeful celebration of machismo and mayhem. In a shrewd marketing move for the time, Price also added a chorus of white backup singers to – what? Well, to remove a little soul from it, I suppose, and make the song more palatable as a crossover hit…exactly the opposite of what legions of blue-eyed soulsters would later do by backing themselves with gospel singers. (Amusingly, the backup vocals on Stagger Lee were by a group named The Ray Charles Singers – no relation.) Whatever Price’s reasons, one can’t argue with his success – the song sold more than a million copies and went to #1 on both the rock ‘n’ roll and R&B charts. For generations, Price’s was the best-known version of the song and arguably remains so today. “The night was clear/The moon was yellow/And the leaves came tumbling down…”

Stackalee – Bama (Alan Lomax field recording): The different versions of the Stagger Lee tale evolved by oral transmission, like a game of “telephone.” Penitentiaries and work farms were a particularly fertile ground for this process, bringing together individuals with an affinity for the material who also had the practical need for singing – to keep time while working. The father-and-son team of folklorists, John and Alan Lomax, should be thanked for preserving many such versions of Stagger Lee (and countless other folk songs). This one, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1947 at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm, is one of the best, a hair-raising a cappella lament. “Billy, I thought you was a gamblin’ man.”

Wrong 'Em Boyo – The Clash: Like the later Nick Cave version, many people erroneously think this one was an original. In fact, it’s a very faithful cover of a 1967 version by a reggae band called The Rulers. If Lloyd Price managed to make himself Stagger Lee’s first cheerleader, The Clash are the first to take Stag and Billy round the pub to talk some sense into them. The song veers between first-person snarl and third-person admonition, but always with an unmistakably happy bounce. The boys know right from wrong, but the suspicion remains that they really just wanna have fun. “Don’t you know it is wrong to cheat the Stagger man?”

Stack-O-Lee (1960s live version) – Mississippi John Hurt: Hurt prefaces this version with a sly spoken-word intro, a story about Stag and his partner robbing a coal mine craps game. This is a good example of the flexibility of the Stagger Lee myth. The spoken-word intro and the song both tell stories of Stagger Lee, but they’re not the same story. Nonetheless, there’s no contradiction; Stagger Lee is always who the singer says he is. “Stack-o-lee was a desperator.”

Stagger Lee (Bandstand Version) – Lloyd Price: When Lloyd Price appeared on American Bandstand, a curious thing happened. Dick Clark and/or ABC decided that a song about an unrepentant murderer might not be the best thing for his audience of teenyboppers, so Clark insisted that Price rework the song to make it suitable for national television. Price responded with this version, reinventing Stagger Lee as a – well – wuss who falls down and cries when that mean ol’ Billy steals his girlfriend. The tune remains as rockin’ as ever – in his book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus points out that the band is even hotter on this version. I have to conclude, though, that the lyrics are a deliberate satire on Clark’s intentions. Tell me anybody could have meant this seriously: “Stagger Lee and Billy never fussed and fight no more/Because he got back his girlfriend/And Stagger Lee was no more sore.”

Stack O'Lee Blues – Ma Rainey: Recorded in 1925, this is the earliest version in my original collection. The melody, refrain, and some of the lyrics are more closely associated with Frankie and Albert (a.k.a. Frankie and Johnny), making this version’s connection to the Shelton/Lyons murder even more tenuous. Still, it’s a gorgeous song, with impeccable and clever phrasing in both the vocal and literary senses. “And when they see Stack O’Lee coming/They give him the road”

Stagger Lee – Nick Cave: Probably the most unsparing version ever recorded, Cave’s rendition is a musical transcription of a prison toast (a pre-rap spoken word form) that’s been around for decades. I only say it’s “probably” the most unsparing version on the off-chance that someone else set the toast to music and I haven’t yet heard it. Here, Stag is boiled down to a quintessence of pride and aggression. To say this Stagger Lee takes no shit is like saying the Atacama desert is a tad dry. “He said, ‘Mr. Motherf*cker, you know who I am?’/The barkeeper said, ‘No, and I don't give a good goddamn.’”

Stagger Lee – Neil Diamond: Neil Diamond’s disco-era cover of the Lloyd Price version. If you think that by itself tells you how horrible this is, you haven’t heard the maracas.

Stackolee – Woody Guthrie: This is one of the most “cowboy” versions in my collection. The outline and a lot of the lyrics are very similar to John Hurt’s version, with some key differences in point of view. In my book, I talk about the differences between “white” versions and “black” versions of Stagger Lee. Simply put, in the blues tradition Stagger Lee is largely viewed as a hero despite his nefarious deeds. In the country tradition, he’s just an outlaw who gets his comeuppance. “It was in the hustling B‑joint where the Mississippi run/Stacker Lee killed Billy DeLyons with a smokin’ forty-one.”

Stack A Lee – Bob Dylan: I’m not a huge Dylan fan, and I actually disliked this version the first time I heard it. You could say, then, it’s the one that’s grown on me most. Dylan’s gargly vocals, which so irritated me on first listen, now seem integral to his telling of the story which, in this case, is a cover of Frank Hutchison’s version. Dylan even outdoes Hutchison in his delivery of Stack and Billy’s wicked final exchange: “Stack-A-Lee, oh Stack-A-Lee, please don’t take my life/Got three little children and a-weepin’, lovin’ wife...”/“God bless your children and I’ll take care of your wife. You stole my John B., now I’m bound to take your life.”

Old Stack O'Lee Blues – Sidney Bechet (instrumental): This version is so sweet and lovely it’s difficult to associate it with the rampaging bad man. Still, Sidney Bechet was expelled from Paris in 1929 for his part in a gunfight that left three people wounded; you may not hear it in his clarinet, but Bechet clearly had plenty of Stack O’Lee in his heart.

Stack O'Lee (1928 version) – Mississippi John Hurt: My favorite version. For two verses he’s only humming, and he’s still telling the story. For my money, Hurt has the most sublime guitar style in the Stagger Lee orchestra. “Boom boom, boom boom, with his forty-four….”

Stack-A-Lee – Dr. John: Dr. John’s version is more or less a cover of Archibald’s “Stack-A-Lee Part 1 and 2.” That earlier landmark stands as a kind of unified field theory of Stagger Lee, drawing together all of the major themes and motifs in one epic song. I mean it as no diminishment of Archibald’s achievement to say that Dr. John’s version is an improvement. For one thing, the doctor’s band is hot. For another, the recording of Archibald’s version – or maybe just the particular pressing of it that fell into my hands – is woefully inadequate. They’re both great renditions, but the doctor’s strikes me as the more robust of the two. “Now I told y’all my little story, I sang y’all my little song/‘Bout Stack-A-Lee and Billy Lyons and they both dead and gone.”

Stack-O-Lee – Professor Longhair: Having heard from the doctor, we come to the professor. Is it possible to avoid bouncing along to Professor Longhair’s unmistakable piano? I listened to this CD for a year straight and never managed, but perhaps you’re a hardier soul than I. “Stack-O-Lee lost all of his money/And he lost his brand-new Cadillac/He said “I believe you’ve been cheatin’ Billy/Don’t be here when I come back.”

Billy Lyons and Stack O'Lee – Furry Lewis: A close second to John Hurt on my list of favorites. The gambling motif, a transient convenience of plot in most versions, is brought front and center here, giving this a more general view of human folly than is usually the case. “When you lose your money, learn to lose.”

Stagger Lee – Grateful Dead: I’m even less of a fan of the Dead than I am of Dylan, and this version never managed to grow on me. This would-be update is better than Neil Diamond’s Lloyd Price cover, but I can’t think of much fainter praise. “Not only is that mother big, he packs a forty-five.”

Stagger Lee – Taj Mahal: For this latter-day blues version, Taj Mahal draws on the work of his predecessors and comes up with something singular, timeless, and completely his own. One of the greats. “If you’re ever down in Louisiana/Goin’ to DeLyons’ club/Every foot you be steppin’ in/Billy DeLyons’ blood…”

Stagolee – Jesse Fuller: This version by one-man-band Jesse Fuller sounds like no other, not least because of the striking kazoo solos. I don’t know if it’s his peculiar instruments, his energetic delivery, or something basic and inconcealable in his personality, but more than anyone else on this list Jesse Fuller is clearly having a ball singing about Stagolee. (Bonus point in my estimation: ich bin ein Oaklander, and Fuller was too.) “I believe I’ll play, uh, Stagolee.”

Stagolee – Hogman Maxey: This is another prison recording, this time from the late 1950s, at the Louisiana’s Angola Penitentiary. Angola was a notoriously harsh prison at the time – in 1952, a group of inmates cut their own Achilles tendons to protest the brutal conditions. Maxey’s version is essentially the same as Lloyd Price’s, with a different tempo and slightly changed lyrics. His delivery, though, is very different. His voice is matter-of-fact, but his picking is downright violent, bespeaking a rage that only gathers force as the song draws to its conclusion. “Some folks don’t believe, oh, Lord, that Billy dead/You don’t believe he gone, just look for the hole in his head.”

Stackalee – Frank Hutchison (instrumental): Hutchison is a largely forgotten pioneer, known as the first white bluesman to record. He was a coal miner in West Virginia at eight years of age, at the same time learning guitar from a black railway man. He played the guitar on his lap, using a knife as a slide, and accompanied himself on harmonica. This instrumental version of Stackalee has more of a country lope to it than most of the versions of this period, reflecting Hutchison’s straddling of blues and country material.

Stack Lee's Blues – Steve James: Steve James does something fairly unusual here among contemporary tellers of the Stagger Lee tale – rather than covering or reworking a traditional blues version of the song, he starts from scratch and makes his own new version. As I did in my book, James attempts to reconcile historical and folkloric versions of the story. His starting point, though, is a theory about the origins of the name “Stacker Lee” that predates John David’s mid-1970s unearthing of the Lee Shelton story. This earlier theory held that the name “Stacker Lee” came from the ne’er-do-well scion of the wealthy family that owned the Lee steamboat line. I have my doubts about that premise, but the song is very entertaining, and certainly more successful as a reimagining than the Grateful Dead version. James tips a hat to his mentor Furry Lewis with the line, “If you lose your money, learn to lose.” “My mama she was a steamboat gal on the Jim Lee line employed/She was only one of many whose company my daddy enjoyed/When he took off his John B. Stetson hat.”

Stagger Lee – Fats Domino (live): A straightforward if energetic cover of the Lloyd Price version, sticking in my memory chiefly because of the inscrutable spoken introduction Fats gives the song: “It’s about two people who love to gamble and now make three.”

Stackalee – Frank Hutchison (with vocals): Recorded at the same 1927 session that produced the instrumental version referred to earlier, this one replaces harmonica with Hutchison’s voice, singing the lyrics Bob Dylan would reproduce more than sixty years later. One touch Dylan didn’t include was a sort of one-man call-and-response, where Hutchison would pose rhetorical questions to himself to move the narrative along at key moments (i.e., “How’d they catch ol’ Stackalee?”). Like Dylan’s, Hutchison’s voice is perhaps an acquired taste, but it’s the character of his voice that makes me prefer this version to the instrumental. Making the Stagger Lee graphic novel has been a rewarding experience in many and varied ways, but one thing I’m really grateful for is the introduction it gave me to early blues and roots music of which I might otherwise have remained unaware. In the 1920s, the definition of American popular music had not yet been calcified and commodified, and small record labels recorded acts of infinite variety in the trial and error process of discovering what people would pay to hear. The likes of Hutchison, John Hurt, or Furry Lewis were truly pioneers; they weren’t trying to fit themselves into some mass-marketed notion of what a country or blues song should sound like. They sang in styles defined by the towns where they lived, in the ways that seemed most natural to them. “Stackalee turned to the jailer, he said, ‘Jailer, I can’t sleep. ‘Round my bedside Billy Lyons began to creep.’”

Stack O Lee Aloha – Bob Brozman (instrumental): This is one of the most bizarre versions I turned up, if not the most. Multi-instrumentalist and ethnomusicologist Brozman’s jolly goof on the Stagger Lee legend features a ukulele in the lead and inevitably conjures an image of lighthearted homicide at a back-alley luau.

Stackalee – Dave Van Ronk: Dave Van Ronk was one of the few white performers of the early-60s folk boom who could sing blues and not sound like a complete ass. He had an exceptionally weathered voice, shaped the old-fashioned way with cigarettes and whiskey, and he had an unmistakable emotional understanding of his material. His reworking of Furry Lewis’ version of the song earns a respectable place in the Stagger Lee canon. “Well they sent for the militia/Wagons come/Loaded up with pistols and a great big Gatling gun.”

Stack-A-Lee Part 1 & 2 – Archibald: As mentioned in the discussion of the Dr. John version, this one is a landmark in the history of Stagger Lee. Archibald took pieces from many different versions of the story and shaped it all together in a single coherent narrative, chronicling the argument, the crime, the punishment (Stack goes to hell), and the final triumph of Stack-a-Lee (he kicks the devil off his throne and claims the place for himself). It was too big a story to fit on one side of a single, so Archibald split it into two parts, but it’s really one song. Unfortunately, as alluded to in the discussion of the Dr. John version, the copy I have is annoyingly muffled. If there’s a better-sounding version out there anywhere, I’d really love to hear it. “Now the devil heard a rumbling, a mighty rumbling under the ground/Said ‘That must be Mr. Stack turning Billy upside down.’”

Stack and Billy – Fats Domino: Not another Lloyd Price cover, but Fats Domino’s own unique contribution to the Stagger Lee canon. Here it’s the story of a revenge killing; coincidentally. there’s an element of that in the historical story, but it’s generally not been a part of the legend. The lyrics are as stark as the ones Dick Clark had Lloyd Price change for American Bandstand but the music is incongruously giddy. Sassy horns and cheerily bouncing piano make it sound like the story of a murder committed during a game of musical chairs at a child’s birthday party. A very odd version. “Stacker Lee told Billy, ‘You killed my best friend Jack/If you wanna go on livin’, don’t be here when I get back.’”

Stagger Lee – Ike and Tina Turner: I’m sure there must be others out there somewhere, but this is the only cover of the Lloyd Price version I’ve found that has a female vocal. It also has a super-funky bass.

Stackolee – Sonny Terry (w/ Woody Guthrie): This version is very similar to the one credited earlier to Woody Guthrie, with the regrettable addition of an embarrassing spoken-word intro. “It’s pretty bad, havin’ to live all your life with a chain around your leg.”

Stagger Lee – Wilson Pickett: It’s at this point that the compilation grows unfortunately repetitive. I added versions to my disc in the order that I found them, and was subject to an unavoidable preponderance of Lloyd Price covers. I like Price’s version just fine, but three in a row is a bit much. I suppose one might take it for granted that there’d be a little sameness if you collect dozens of versions of the same song, but there had actually been a lot of variety until now. At any rate… Pickett’s version has verve and gusto and a hot horn section, but doesn’t offer a lot of surprises. “Well, Billy’s gone on home now, but one thing about it, it’ll teach the rest o’ you gamblers a lesson!”

Stagger Lee – Johnny Moeller: Moeller slows the tempo down and lays on the guitar filigree, but if you’ve been listening for two hours it’s starting to seem like more of the same. “It didn’t make no difference.”

Stagger Lee – Isley Brothers: This one has guitar by a promising young newcomer by the name of Jimi Hendrix and some of the most impassioned vocals on my compilation, but – come on! – that’s three Lloyd Price covers in a row!

Stagger Lee and Billy – Ike and Tina Turner: Something new at last! In this version Billy’s the bully, beating the crap out of the hapless Stag, who made the grievous error of kissing Billy’s girl. It’s an unusually gentle version of the story, featuring a fistfight rather than a gunfight. It also has an unusual setting – a go-go club, presumably in L.A. (The lyrics say “The Go-Go West,” which I take to refer to Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.) Tina is scandalized by the hullabaloo, but a Stagger Lee story where the big ruckus involves throwing “chairs and bottles all over the place” seems downright quaint. “His head looked like a watermelon’s overcoat.”

Stack-A-Lee – Johnny Otis: Another Lloyd Price cover, but one of my favorites. Bay Area local legend Johnny Otis never became as famous as the people he worked with, but his career spans the history of rock ‘n’ roll and in that time he wore many hats: singer, musician, bandleader, deejay, A&R man, producer, radio, songwriter, and on and on. He discovered Jackie Wilson, produced some of Little Richard’s earliest recordings, and had a legitimate hit with “Willie and the Hand Jive.” His version of Stagger Lee, arranged in the dance party mode he always favored, stands as an affectionate tribute to his old friend Lloyd Price.

Stack-O-Lee – Tennessee Ernie Ford: This is the only country swing version I have in my collection, and it’s a little gem: tinkly piano, slappin’ bass, goofy percussion, and the ineffable “aw shucks” vocals of Ernie Ford all working in playful contrast to the same hellbound story arc Archibald put together. “Gonna fix ol’ Billy’s wagon so he don’t gamble wrong no more.”

Stagger Lee – Jerry Lee Lewis (live): My compilation rounds out with one of the most rocking of the Lloyd Price covers. Jerry Lee can’t remember Lloyd Price’s name until somebody in his band shouts it out at the end, but he does the song proud. “Ladies and gentlemen, a fine song done by…um…somebody…I don’t know who…but it’s a great song….”

So that was two hours of Stagger Lee. I kept collecting after I filled up those CDs, adding versions by Tim Hardin, Cephas and Wiggins (two different versions), Beck, R.L. Burnside, and a few others I can’t recall off the top of my head. The one I really wish I’d found in time to put on the disc is an improvised performance by Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Memphis Slim off a disc called Blues in the Mississippi Night. That’s one that should be tracked down by any serious aficionado of Stagger Lee.

More recently, I was dragged kicking and screaming into the era of MP3s and found a wealth of versions that would have taken me years to collect in the old paradigm. I wrote about some of those versions on my own Stagger Lee blog a while back – my favorite discovery was the Blind Jesse Harris version, which is better experienced than described.

For those eager to learn even still more about Stagger Lee, you can find a comprehensive overview of the subject here: And of course you can visit my own sites at: and

see also:

the book's website
the book's blog
upcoming book signings

Entertainment Weekly review
Comic Book Commentary review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review

Wikipedia entry for Stagger Lee

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)