The (true) legend of Stagolee

The story of a deadly bar fight between a guy named Billy and a guy named Stagolee (or Stack Lee, or Stagger Lee) has worked its way into a broad swath of 20th-century music — from the blues of 1930s Southern prisoners, to Duke Ellington, to James Brown, to the Grateful Dead. At Davey D's Hip Hop History 101, Cecil Brown traces the true story behind the legend back to the red light district of St. Louis in 1895.


  1. way of Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, with a little country blues:

    His honorary doctorate was long overdue.

  2. I’m a lifelong Grateful Dead fan, but I’ve gotta give Nick Cave the edge on this one. Wonderfully NSFW.

  3. I prefer Nick Cave’s version for its unapologetic delivery. And the fact that the violinist/multiinstrumentalist is Warren Ellis. And years later I learned there was an author named Warren Ellis. And they know each other and each is often mistaken for the other.

    1. Perfect timing for this, now that Cave is doing a pretty big US tour.

      I was very sad that the Ellises were not the same. They even look vaguely similar!

  4. My favorites would also include those mentioned, Nick Cave and Pacific Gas and Electric.  Others that I like:
    The Clash:

    Mississippi John Hurt: Stackolee

  5. Funny you should mention him, because there’s a liquor store near me called Staggerlee’s, and I got curious and had to look him up, just a couple of weeks ago.  I was left with the feeling that he was more or less a nobody, who stumbled into a blues song.

  6. A little OT, but

    In gangsta rap, the performers are acting out the lives of the criminals in an effort to dispel the criminal from their midst, as a way to get rid of the negative energy.

    seems like the result of impressive forensic contortions. I get the thread of the Stagolee icon from blues ballad to rock to rap, but gangsta rap as magical warding ritual is a huge leap.

    1. Agreed. Seems like people will write any old shit.  

      Beyond the foolishness of trying to rehabilitate Gangsta Rap, basically, “similar” does not mean “the same as.”

      Stagger Lee was a bad motherfucker with criminal connections, and the Stetson was his bling, but I think the author’s contention that every bad man song sine 1895 is formally indebted to Stagger Lee to be a bit much.

      The explicit connections are plentiful and interesting enough, you don’t need to go inventing connections for things that were merely formed by the same timeless desires

  7. My extended family has a reunion each year and many of them are great singers. One uncle always sings “Stagger Lee” and the whole family shouts out “Go Stagger Lee” at the end of each verse.  I first heard the song in a family bar when I was a kid in New Orleans and have loved it every since.  I’m 62 now and can’t wait for the next family reunion.

  8. “The final act of brutality, where the great Stagger Lee blows the head off Billy . . . while he is committing fellatio [was] especially attractive,” said Cave.
    Anyone else think of the Shawshank Redemption when they read that?

  9. Surprised that no one mentioned the Dr John version on Gumbo, still a  fave album of mine. The spelling for that one was Stagger Lee. It was the first time I had ever heard the song so I am rather sentimental about it.

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