The legend of “Stagger Lee” is born

The legend of “Stagger Lee” is born

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Murder and mayhem have been the subject of many popular songs over the years, though more often than not, the tales around which such songs revolve tend to be wholly fictional. Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno, and the events related in such famous story songs as “El Paso” and “I Shot The Sheriff” never actually took place. The same cannot be said, however, about “Stagger Lee”—a song that has drifted from the facts somewhat over the course of its many lives in the last 100-plus years, but a song inspired by an actual murder that took place on December 27, 1895, in a St. Louis, Missouri, barroom argument involving a man named Billy and another named “Stag” Lee.

Under the headline “Shot in Curtis’s Place,” the story that ran in the next day’s edition of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat began, “William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand… was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis… by Lee Sheldon, also colored.” According to the Globe-Democrat’s account, Billy Lyons and “Stag” Lee Sheldon “had been drinking and were in exuberant spirits” when an argument over “politics” boiled over, and Lyons “snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head.” While subsequent musical renditions of this story would depict the dispute as one over gambling, they would preserve the key detail of “Stag” Lee Sheldon’s headwear and of his matter-of-fact response to losing it: “Sheldon drew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen…When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away.”

In his 2003 book Stagolee Shot Billy, based on his earlier doctoral dissertation on the subject, scholar Cecil Brown recounts the story of how the real “Stag” Lee became an iconic figure in African American folklore and how his story became the subject of various musical renderings “from the [age of the] steamboat to the electronic age in the American 21st century.” The most famous of those musical renditions were 1928’s “Stack O’ Lee Blues” by Mississippi John Hurt and 1959’s “Stagger Lee,” an unlikely #1 pop hit for Lloyd Price. Versions of the story have also appeared, however, in songs by artists as wide-ranging as Woody Guthrie, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, James Brown, The Clash, the Grateful Dead and Nick Cave.

Lee Shelton

Lee Shelton (March 16, 1865 – March 11, 1912), popularly known as "Stagolee," "Stagger Lee," "Stack-O-Lee," and other variations, was an American criminal who became a figure of folklore after murdering Billy Lyons on Christmas 1895. The murder, reportedly to be motivated partially by the theft of Shelton's Stetson hat, made Shelton an icon of toughness and style in the minds of early folk and blues musicians, and inspired the popular folk song "Stagger Lee." The story endures in the many versions of the song that have circulated since the late 19th century.

This Day in History: The Legend of the General Lee is Born

OK, so technically the General Lee’s birthday occurred sometime in 1969 since the General was a 1969 Dodge Charger. However, on this day in 1978, a stuntman on the set of The Dukes of Hazzard launched the show’s iconic 󈨉 Charger off a makeshift dirt ramp, over a police car–and into history.

The legend of the General Lee was born.

Although more than 300 different General Lees appeared in the series, which ran on CBS from 1979 until 1985, this first one was the only one to play a part in every episode, appearing each week at the end of the show’s opening credits. The General Lee would go on to become one of the most recognizable and popular American cars of all time, even landing at the top of our list of greatest TV cars. The 300-plus Generals–as many as 321 by some accounts–used either a 318, 383, or 440-cubic-inch engine and a 727 TorqueFlite transmission in most cases.

Even today, nearly 30 years after the end of the Dukes of Hazzard series, it’s common to see General Lee replicas at national and local car shows alike. You can even find General Lee-inspired imposters on this cool Pinterest site.

But there’s only one original.

Let’s head on over to the Boar’s Nest and toast the legendary General Lee, shall we.

The story of the story of Stagger Lee

T his is the story of how a bar-room shooting involving one “Stag” Lee Shelton became one of the most prominent narratives of 20th century popular culture in America:

William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets by Lee Sheldon, also colored. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. The discussion drifted to politics and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon drew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. He was removed to the city hospital. At the time of the shooting, the saloon was crowded with negroes. Sheldon is a carriage driver and lives at North Twelfth Street. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Sheldon is also known as “Stag” Lee. 1

With this newspaper report from 28 December 1895, the legend of Stagger Lee was born. Emerging from the African-American oral tradition, the story would continuously renew itself throughout the 20th century, finding expression in various music genres from classical blues, through rhythm and blues, jazz, boogie-woogie, country, folk, soul, punk, rock and roll, ska and reggae. To date, 428 different versions of the Stagger Lee song have been identified. 2 Successive reworkings of the story reflect changing African-American consciousness as the social status of black Americans went from subservient second-class ­citizenship—barely freed from slave status—through the civil rights movement to full political freedom and equality before the law (although we know that even today, before that law, black lives matter less).

The earliest versions

Artistic response to news of the shooting was immediate the Kansas City Leavenworth Herald reported on a performance of “Stack-a-Lee in variations” by “Prof Charlie Lee, the piano thumper” as early as 21 August 1897 at the K C Negro Press association. 3 Being part of an oral tradition, Lee’s name, as we shall see, went through a number of changes: Stack O’Lee, Stackolee, Stackalee, Stackerlee, Stagolee, Stagger Lee and more. For the sake of clarity and consistency, we are going to refer to the legendary character always as Stagger Lee.

The earliest traceable print version of the legend dates from February 1910, when a woman in Texas, Ella Fisher, sent musicologist and folklorist John Lomax eight stanzas of “The Ballad of Stagalee”, commenting that the song was sung “by the Negroes on the levee while they are loading and unloading the river freighters”. 4 An article in American Blues Scene confirms that the earliest versions of the legend would have been field hollers or other work songs sung by African-American labourers along the lower Mississippi River. 5 The following year the first published versions of the lyrics appeared in The Journal of American Folklore . 6 And finally, the earliest recording of the song is attributed to Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians in 1923. 7

Akin and contemporary to these field hollers and work songs must be the “prison toasts” or street “toast poems” , a subgenre of the African-American oral tradition in which the narrator boasts of the heroic deeds of an admired lawbreaker or “bad man” (see “Interpreting the song” below). It was a version of such a prison toast that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds came across for their foul-mouthed and aggressive rendering of the song on their 1996 album Murder Ballads . Although this version, which Cave found in a book on Negro American toasts, is set in the 1930s, we can assume the genre, “a precursor of gangsta rap”, had existed for several decades but had never been recorded, the white musicologists of the 1920s being less appreciative of its authentic vulgar low-class language and unsubtle violence than they were of classic blues, which they discovered around this time. “The gods gave us this song and they were pissing themselves with laughter when they did it,” boasts Cave. 8 It is precisely because of the profanity and vulgarity of this genre that Cave’s version is somewhat incongruous in terms of the general 20th century history of the legend, as this thread of the oral tradition rarely made it into the recording studios or onto the music sheets.

The fact is that although the “Stag” Lee incident received various forms of popular expression during the first two decades of the 20th century, it was not until white people got interested in the blues that the first recordings of songs about Stagger Lee were made. One of these was Furry Lewis’s 1927 recording “Billy Lyons and Stack O’Lee”.

Lewis’s version is in a classic Memphis blues style, where the point of a song is to tell a story and the melody line and musical arrangement are there to enhance this purpose. The simple lyric is backed by hypnotic repetitive riffs and subtle slide guitars. Lewis’s soft voice and quick slide work are particularly eloquent. Telling the story some 30 years after the event, there are significant differences between Lewis’s description of the event and the original newspaper article. Most notably Lewis refers to a gambling dispute between Lyons and Lee rather than a political argument as The Globe reported. Secondly, Lewis makes no reference to Lee taking the Stetson from the wounded man. Then he introduces Lyons’s sister into the story and tells how she pleads in vain for her brother’s life. Lewis does pick up from the original report that Lee “coolly walked away” after the shooting. These two factors build on and consolidate the reputation Lee was acquiring as a merciless, heartless and cold-blooded killer, which makes the sheriff reluctant to risk his life to go after him and bring him to justice. Finally, a key element of this version is the insistent common sense moralising refrain: “When you lose your money, learn to lose”. Some early versions like this one tended to condemn Lee’s actions as a senseless crime and offer the story as a moral warning. This was an example of how a man ought not to conduct himself.

Incidentally, and as if to confirm the stereotype of Americans as being fascinated by guns, the type of weapon Lee used to kill Billy is specified in all the ­interpretations of the legend we shall look at although the original report only mentions “his revolver”. Here it is a .45, although in subsequent renditions it tends to be a .44.

Lewis’s 1927 recorded version was swiftly followed, in 1928, by an interpretation from Mississippi John Hurt: Stack O’Lee Blues . White musicians’ interest in the blues led to Hurt, a black guitarist and singer, taking part in recording sessions in New York and Memphis around this time. But, with the depression of the 1930s, interest in African-American popular culture waned. Hurt returned to sharecropping for 35 years until folk musicologist Tom Hoskins located him in 1963 and he was persuaded to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, where he won the acclaim of the new folk revival audience

Comparing this second version with the original newspaper report and Lewis’s version of the events, we can see some important new elements taken up in the song. First and foremost, Lewis’s head-shaking moralising has given way to an expression of numb stupor at the sheer evilness of Lee’s crime: “That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’Lee” Hurt repeats with every third line. Indeed, as the title suggests, the focus is now more on the killer than on the bar fight. The reluctance to go after the criminal, introduced by Lewis, is given more prominence by Hurt, but in this version the killer is in the end brought to justice and hanged. The incident with the hat, that Lewis had ignored, is brought back as a key element in the story. For it seems that the theft of the hat, rather than any political or gambling dispute, makes Lee feel compelled to kill his opponent. In this version it is Lyons himself, rather than his sister, who pleads for his life, emphasising Lee’s callous lack of compassion.

In 1931 Woody Guthrie recorded a version, Stackolee , that was closely based on Hurt’s model. Guthrie, we learn, got into popular black music through his friendship with an African-American blues harmonica player who we know only by the name of George. Here are some of the parallels between the two versions:

That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’Lee

He was a bad man, that mean old Stagolee

Police officer, how can it be? You can ’rest everybody but cruel Stack O’Lee

The high sheriff asked the deputy “How can it be? You can arrest everybody but you scare of Stagolee

On Saturday we hanged him, we were all glad to see him die

At twelve o’clock they killed him, they’s all glad to see him die

In spite of the similarities there is quite an important difference between the two versions. Hurt’s carries an air of gravitas that contrasts with the relative levity of Guthrie’s interpretation. This has a lot to do with the number of syllables in a bar. For example: for Guthrie the words come tripping out quite rapidly in “He was a bad man, that mean old Stagolee” (11 syllables), whereas in “That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee” (eight syllables) vowels tend to be lengthened and more emphatic, lending them weight and making the song more downbeat. Note especially the seriousness marked by the drawn-out diphthong of the adjective “cruel” in contrast to the relative triviality of Guthrie’s more commonplace “mean old”. The contrast is even greater if we compare the five syllables of “police officer” with two long drawn-out vowels in “po-lice” and the nine quick-fire ones of “the high sheriff asked the deputy”. A further contrast is that, for Guthrie, from the outset “everybody knows” that Lee was a bad man, whereas Hurst shows a degree of astonishment at the badness of the protagonist. On top of that, there is more distance to the events created by Guthrie’s use of the pronoun “they” (they killed him) than in Hurt’s using “we” (we hanged him). Last but not least, Guthrie puts in 12 stanzas in the same time as it takes Hurt to get through six. Hurt’s slower delivery focuses on the apparently absurd killing, working around the line “You done stole my Stetson hat I’m bound to take your life”. Guthrie’s version contains this same line but it gets rather lost in the long rambling narrative into which the singer works a lot of detail and some of his usual socio-critical themes. The economy of Hurt’s narration is lost in this expansive upbeat tribute to the blues maestro.

Interpreting the song

To analyse the song’s evolution more closely, we are now going to look at what contemporary material can tell us about the social context of the various versions of the song with a particular focus on four aspects of the legend: the mythology of the “bad man” Lee’s taunting of the white authorities Lee’s death sentence and hanging and the symbolism of the Stetson hat.

Whereas Lewis provides an insistent moral warning as a refrain to his song, Hurt and Guthrie dwell on a head shaking repudiation almost beyond words of the evil—the cold-blooded callousness—of Lee’s crime. This change reflects a development in the legend. As James P Hauser points out, in the early decades of the 20th century the Stagger Lee story evolved as part of a tradition where folk tales about a legendary black “bad man” served the purpose of helping African-Americans to bear the trials and torments of everyday oppression. The bad man of this tradition did not lead a fight against oppression such a fight was doomed to failure. What the bad man did was put himself beyond the morality and law of white society. 9

At this time the moral norms of white society in the United States were rooted in the twisted laws and customs of the Jim Crow system. The Jim Crow laws were enacted in the southern states and enforced from 1876, not long after the abolition of slavery, until 1965. They mandated “separate but equal” status for black Americans: segregation, in other words. In the southern states, as we know, public schools, public transportation and public places in general were segregated by law with separate (and inferior) buildings, toilets and restaurants for black people.

It was these laws that the African-American had to abide by and that were defied by the badness of the legendary Stagger Lee and other “mean types” of the tradition. As such, for black Americans the bad man became a symbol of non-recognition of unjust white authority, an authority which as yet went unchallenged politically.

Figures like Stagger Lee became objects of admiration in the African-American community because they stood up to and defied the white man’s system. Their badness put them—for a while at least—beyond the white man’s law. Thus, in Hurt’s and Guthrie’s versions, we find not only a reluctance on the part of the representatives of white authority to risk their lives by going after the cold-blooded killer, as was the case in Lewis’s version, but a mocking of the police officer/deputy sheriff burdened with the dangerous task of bringing in the now legendary bad man. African-Americans, says Hauser, felt a secret pride in the fact that Stagger Lee, who was after all one of them, was too much of a challenge for the enforcers of the white man’s law.

The personal resistance of the bad man could not be a political victory and even in narrative form more politically organised resistance still seemed to be a proposition too far-fetched to be credible but it did mean refusing to resign oneself to the status quo and surviving with self-respect intact to face and fight another day. As James Baldwin explained to Maya Angelou: survival was a main ingredient that African-Americans put into their folk tales. 10

It is as if Guthrie does not feel these elements of African-American folklore as intensely as Hurt, hence the relative light-heartedness of his delivery and his more distanced standpoint. As a white man, seeing badness as a sort of virtue, the taunting of authority, and the struggle for survival were not so integral to Guthrie’s lived experience. In his case the elements of the story were handed down to him as hearsay, something “everybody knows”. Both the Lewis and Hurt interpretations share a gravity and involvement that are not to be found in Guthrie.

Lawrence Levine, in his book Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery to Freedom , points out that the bad man of black folklore is in no way to be identified with the noble outlaw or social bandit, such as Robin Hood or Pretty Boy Floyd, in white folklore. According to Levine, these benefactors to and heroes of the poor and oppressed are generated during times of great social change or upheaval and imply a desire for a return to a more legitimate order of the past (the just rule of Richard I or the intact farming family unit of pre-depression Oklahoma in these two cases). Their aims seem not only justifiable but also realisable. 11

Such an option of a return to justice was simply not available to the African-American community during the first half of the 20th century. For them, there was no idealised past which they could dream of restoring. Their roots had been severed. The bad man folk tradition among African-Americans is a reflection of the fact that there was simply no possible perspective of a better world and no tangible hope for change in the one in which they were condemned to live. In short, there was no way out of the dilemma for the bad man except via the hangman’s noose. But it was a proudly defiant way out and, as such, the noblest option available. So the death sentence handed out to Lee is significant. Stagger Lee held “his head way up high” as he went to the gallows. Curiously enough, it is only Guthrie who explicitly states this among the versions we look at.

The Stetson was in the original newspaper report. It disappeared from Lewis’s minimalist version of the story but was reintroduced in the Hurt and Guthrie versions and nearly all subsequent versions. The significance of the Stetson requires some explanation. In his book Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans , trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who left New Orleans for Chicago in the early 1920s, relates how many black men coveted Stetson hats in those days and would often purchase them on instalment plans. 12 Furthermore, Cecil Brown argues that Stagger Lee’s Stetson “represents his manhood”. 13 Many of the men who were now wearing Stetsons in the early years of the 20th century were direct descendants of slaves. Wearing a Stetson marked them out as free men, equal in status to the fashionable and well-heeled white men who were also wearing them.

Thus the dispute over the Stetson is not simply a trivial dispute over ownership of property it represents a fight for manhood. The African-American’s struggle for manhood was an element of the struggle for freedom and equality. In the words of Malcolm X: “the white man wants you to remain a boy”. The $5 Stetson hat for which Stagger Lee shot Billy was ultimately a symbol of the black man’s manhood, his coming of age in white society. He was no longer “a (nigger) boy” but a free adult male. It was his manhood itself that Lee was recovering from Billy Lyons.

James Baldwin goes on to say “an anonymous black woman” (Rosa Parks) was instrumental in helping Stagger Lee achieve his manhood. 14

Archibald’s landmark version

Before we make the leap from Stagger Lee to Rosa Parks, we need to look at two further re-tellings of the incident, Archibald’s comprehensive rendering of the legend, Stack-A-Lee recorded in 1950 and Lloyd Price’s 1958 version. By this time the song felt rather remote, not only in years but also in terms of contemporary lived experience, from its original source. But this version was considered outstanding at least partly due to the fact that it is made up of two parts, covering both side A and B of the record release, in order to give the story the ­comprehensive treatment it seemed to warrant. Archibald (born Leon Gross) was a blues pianist from New Orleans and he plays and sings on the recording in a laid-back easy-going style with a very simple arrangement in which his narrative is underscored by his comfortably swinging piano accompaniment. The story’s two parts are linked by a superb “Take it away Archie” boogie-woogie piano solo.

A number of elements of Archibald’s version are familiar to us: it was a gambling dispute the weapon used (in this case a .44 revolver) Billy pleading for his life in vain and citing his children and his loving wife Lee’s callous response and the Stetson hat. But there are also a number of new elements: bulldog barks alert us to the dispute between Billy and Lee Billy is demonstrated to be a cheat the Stetson is part of a wager Lee places and is gambled away rather than stolen the bullet that kills Billy breaks the bartender’s glass. A significant element is missing from Archibald’s rendition of the events: there is neither moral condemnation nor numbed stupor at the callousness of the killer’s action indeed, between the killer and his victim there is now not so much to choose. We find a fascination with detail but less focus on deeper meanings. Even Billy’s pleading for his life seems fairly incidental to this version of the story. And as for the Stetson: the symbolism is weakened, for would you risk gambling away your manhood?

The bulldog barks and the bullet passing through Billy are banal details whose purpose seems to be to add to the verisimilitude of the narration, the latter in particular making a fascinating image, but one of marginal relevance—and of course made-up. They are in themselves quite trivial.

Part two is a development beyond the basic “facts” of the story: skipping the execution it takes us to Lee’s funeral—attended by women dressed specifically “in orange and red”: colours not of mourning, but of energy and passion, even of optimism and extroversion, offering emotional strength and resilience in the face of grief and despair. Both Stack and Billy go to hell for their wickedness, but the bad man myth is taken ad absurdum , for now it is not simply the police officer or the High Sheriff but the Devil himself who fears Lee’s unbridled evil!

This absurd fearful Devil metaphor appears also in country singer Tennessee Ernie Ford’s contemporary version (from 1951), which is even more upbeat than Archibald’s, in a jumpy jitterbug arrangement more clearly tongue in cheek, too. Like Archibald’s, it contains the essential familiar ingredients but with an over-the-top exaggeration of Lee’s badness. This playful hyperbole indicates that in this post-war period the serious intention behind the bad man mythology had lost its original force and was barely being taken seriously any more, either by black or white performers.

Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee

When Lloyd Price’s version of Stagger Lee reached Number One in the US charts in February 1959, it was the first rock ’n’ roll record by a black artist to do so. Price had included the song in his repertoire as band leader in the US Army while stationed in Korea in the mid-1950s. The “Lee and Billy story” became a central pillar of his stage act: “While entertaining the troops, I put together a little play based on it. I’d have soldiers acting out the story while I sang it.” After being discharged from the army, Lloyd returned to his recording career and included a version of his Stag Lee army act as the B-side of his 1958 single You Need Love . DJs discovered it and started to air it in preference to the A-side—the rest is rock ’n’ roll history. 15

Lloyd Price’s innovatory interpretation of the legend broke in many ways with the familiar elements of the story, which, as we have seen, was evolving anyway. It is with this break with the mainstream Stagger Lee tradition that we return to Rosa Parks and remind ourselves that, in the curious view of James Baldwin, it was she who helped Stagger Lee to achieve his manhood. 16

From Stagger Lee to Rosa Parks

The story of Rosa Parks is an essential part of American history. On the way home from work on 1 December 1955 she refused to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back of the bus, which the Jim Crow segregation laws still demanded. On the face of it and in the terms of reference of those times and that place, this was an act of wilful “badness” in line with the “bad man” anti-hero of the folk tradition. It was a refusal to resign to the status quo. Parks’s actions have often been portrayed, not as an attempt to challenge the law, but rather as a simple reaction to weariness, an act of self-preservation in order to survive to face another day. James Baldwin seeing Rosa Parks as “an anonymous black woman” seems to adhere to this interpretation.

In reality, Parks’s individual act of resistance must be seen in the context of a burgeoning civil rights movement in which she played an active role and that gave moral support to her actions. Survival may have been until now the essential ingredient of the African-American oral tradition. But survival was no longer the name of the game African-Americans had acquired greater aspirations than the desire to survive to face yet another day of oppression.

Parks’s celebrated act of defiance led to the Montgomery bus boycott. It had political repercussions that changed the face of race relations in the US. Barely two years later Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1957, the first major piece of civil rights legislation passed in over 80 years. In September 1957 federal troops guarded black students bringing about the court-ordered integration of a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. 17

Against this background, Price’s army stage act of Stagger Lee was evolving in Korea. US troops there had been racially integrated since 1950, one of the very first signs that the walls of segregation were being broken down. Having grown up in the South, Price must have appreciated and been positively affected by this. 18 These events and experiences went into the development of his Stagger Lee and would find expression in his final version of the song.

An anticipatory celebration

Archibald had paved the way for Price’s development of the legend. Indeed, Price’s version follows Archibald’s part one faithfully in telling nothing more than the “bare facts”—largely invented, of course—of the killing, ending at the moment when the bullet passed through Billy and broke the bartender’s glass. Gone is the taunting of white authority and gone, too, are Lee’s arrest and death sentence. Certainly there is nothing here of his super-evil exploits in hell nor is there any longer room for either moralising or numbed stupor.

The solemnity of the earliest versions is long gone. But gone, too, is Archibald’s laid-back, easy-going delivery, to be replaced by a sort of urgency that has been, and can only be, described as “manic”. 19 In fact one of the most remarkable features of the 1958 version is the way the backup singers, in the course of the narration, seem to be urging the killer on, with their inciting chant “Go Stagger Lee”, reinforced by the insistent rise of an octave on the fourth and last bar.

In his rock history The Sound of the City , Charlie Gillett points out that Price’s record company ABC-Paramount tended to provide a loud, rhythmic and cheerful musical backing on all his records. 20 So it seems questionable whether there is any deliberate ideological intention here. Nonetheless, the dissonance between the cheerful arrangement and the brutal storyline is undeniable and seems to be the accumulation of a trend that started with Guthrie’s trivialisation of the story and certainly developed through Archibald’s and Ford’s upbeat versions at the start of the 1950s.

Hauser draws parallels between the jubilant tone of Price’s Stagger Lee , with the rampant exuberance of its arrangement, and the slave spiritual In That Great Gettin’ Up Morning from the previous century. This spiritual, Hauser suggests, owed its popularity to the anticipation felt in the mid-19th century when the Southern States slaves came to see that their liberation was at last close at hand. 21 In the same way that such gospels celebrated the imminent release from slavery, so may Price’s rock ’n’ roll rendition of Stagger Lee be seen as an anticipatory celebration of the imminent success of the struggle for civil rights.

As we have said, Price’s version follows part one of the Archibald version practically word for word. However, there is one notable addition in the dramatic, suspense-creating two-line introduction to the story: “The night was clear and the moon was yellow/and the leaves came tumbling down”. Then “seven quick horn blasts shatter the calm”. This arrangement evokes another old slave spiritual, frequently sung in church by black congregations and which Price would certainly have known, entitled Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho —in that the line “and the leaves came tumbling down” echoes the spiritual’s line “and the walls came tumbling down”. Consolidating the symbolism, the seven horn blasts in the introduction to the song echo the seven trumpets of ram’s horns that were blown by seven priests after circling the city seven times on the seventh day of the siege of Jericho in the bible story. In the song, the backing singers shout as they join in with later sets of horn blasts, also paralleling the bible story in which the multitude, exercising a sort of psychological warfare, shouted out on hearing the trumpet blasts. 22

In African-American folklore the Battle of Jericho was closely associated with the fight to end slavery. Joshua, god’s chosen successor to Moses, who was to lead the people of Israel to the promised land, stood for the black man in his righteousness, his faith in god, and his perseverance against overwhelming odds. As god had intervened on behalf of Joshua, as He had intervened on behalf of the slave population, so would He intervene again in the just struggle for equal rights in the South. With the inevitability of the falling leaves, like the walls of Jericho, the walls of segregation would finally come tumbling down.

In Price’s version, then, Stagger Lee is no longer presented as a bad man, boldly but vainly defying white authority. In fact, Lee could be seen as a man who exacted justice by taking the law into his own hands: a form of ghetto or street justice—indeed, the very kind of justice that the earliest blues versions moralised against. Thus over 30 years the story of Stagger Lee was reshaped from Furry Lewis’s cautionary blues ballad of 1927 to an aggressive rock ’n’ roll song in the late 1950s. Its theme had been changed from one of surviving oppression to active self-liberation. With Price’s version of Stagger Lee , we can surely agree with Baldwin that he had in a way helped the African-American finally to achieve his manhood. (With all due respect, sisters!)

We could follow Stagger Lee into the 21st century but we will leave it here. Perhaps Hauser overstates his case when he calls Price’s reinvention of the Stagger Lee legend “the ultimate rock ’ n’ roll record”, for as we have seen the story was evolving all the time, often making use of the popular music genre of the day. 23 While the contrast with the gravity of the earliest recorded blues versions is clear, Price’s classic version marks the accumulation of a tendency that had been visible for some time.

There are, anyway, many other outstanding versions of the Stagger Lee legend before as well as after Lloyd Price’s rock ’n’ roll version.

Simon Andrewes is a semi-retired teacher of English to speakers of other languages and nomad socialist, based now in Granada, Spain, but currently volunteer-teaching in Vietnam.

The legend of “Stagger Lee” is born - HISTORY

"William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o'clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon's hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as 'Stag' Lee"

Billy Lyons died from his wounds, and Stag Lee was tried for this killing. The first trial ended in a hung jury amidst major political controversy. He was convicted in the second trial, served time, and died in the nineteen-teens.

The song

This real-life incident soon became legendary in the South, and moved into song -- and down the river to New Orleans, where the killer's name became, variously, Stagolee, Stag-O-Lee, Stackolee or Stack-A-Lee. The latter was the spelling on a Top 10 R&B hit in 1950 performed in two parts by a New Orleans singer in the Professor Longhair style. Born Leon T. Gross, he was known professionally as Archibald (and sometimes as Archie Boy). His musical re-telling of the story might have been the end of the line chart-wise for old Stag, if it weren't for the Korean War. Fellow Crescent City native Lloyd Price had an auspicious start on the R&B charts, just two years after Archibald. He scored six Top 10 hits in one year, from 1952-53, but his success was cut short when he was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Korea. Lloyd wasted no time in forming a military band, and toured Korean and Japanese bases until his discharge in 1956. Part of his stage act involved the Lee and Billy story, as Lloyd recalled: "There were hundreds of lyrics for the old song, but no story. While entertaining the troops, I had put together a little play based on it. I'd have soldiers acting out the story while I sang it.". When he returned to civilian clothes, Lloyd resettled in Washington, D.C. There he joined with an old buddy named Harold Logan to form KRC Records, as a vehicle to re-launch Lloyd's recording career. His song "Just Because" immediately put him back in the Top 10 R&B, and crossed over to pop when the record was released on ABC-Paramount (as part of their buy-out of KRC). At this point, Lloyd became an ABC recording artist, and returned to his New Orleans roots with a re-write of his old Army skit, this time spelled "Stagger Lee". In Korea, Lloyd never thought the playlet could be a hit record, but it soon became a sensation, at one point selling nearly 200,000 copies a day -- and rapidly shot to #1 on the pop charts. But Dick Clark wasn't happy about it. Although Lloyd had appeared on "American Bandstand" and even Clark's Saturday night show with the original version, Dick decided to end the violence. The shooting and blood were too much for his teen TV audience. Lloyd had no choice -- he had to go back into the studio, and record a whole new, cleaned-up version of the story with -- believe it or not -- a happy ending! Stagger Lee and Billy actually make up and become friends again too bad Billy Lyons wasn't really that lucky.

Tourists note

911 N. 12th Street, which was "Stag" Lee Sheldon's house, is still standing, although it was recently boarded up and for sale it's the only house remaining on the block (directly across from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch building). About 15 years ago, an alderman named Bruce Sommer ran a restaurant there called the Sommer House -- with live music, including old-time performers Cousin Curtis & the Cash Rebates, and blues singer Tom Hall. Tom wasn't aware that he was singing in Stagger Lee's old house.

Stagger Lee: A Historical Look at the Urban Legend
by Tony Kullen MUS 199, March 9, 1997

Blues music is a form of African-American folk tradition. It traces it's roots to Africa and the Christian/Gospel influence of the slavery era. As with all forms of folk expression, it relies heavily on traditional myths. Certain characters come back again and again. Blues performers would either copy a previous version (though they would still probably claim authorship), rework the old story to suit their style, or add to it to put a new twist on the story. One such character who shows up all over blues tradition, and, from there, into blues recordings, R&B, rock and roll, and folk tales is Stagger Lee. Variously spelled Stack O'Lee, Stag O'Lee, Stack a Lee, Stackerlee, Skeeg O'Lee, and others, usually based on the producers attempt to phonetically spell the character's name, note 1 was always a bad man. Julius Lester, in his Black Folktales, said, "Stagolee as, undoubtedly and without question, the baddest nigger that ever lived. Stagolee was so bad that the flies wouldn't even fly around his head in the summertime, and snow wouldn't fall on his house in the winter." note 2 Though this seems like extreme hyperbole, it is actually falls right in line with the way most authors/lyricists described Stag. With such a bad character to write about, blues singers had little difficulty with giving Stag all sorts of characteristics. Like "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" for rock, Stagger Lee was a song which everyone in blues played. There are at least 63 documented recordings, and there are probably more, as well as countless unrecorded live versions. A list of recordings of Stagger Lee is like reading a who's who in blues, with such names as Jesse Fuller, Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Mississippi Slim, Ma Rainey, and others. With so many versions, tracing the history of Stag is somewhat difficult. Everyone seems to have an answer as to the origins of the tale, but most sources contradict each other.

To understand the background of the song, it is essential to know the "cast of characters" and the basic plot. Almost every version involves Stagger Lee killing Billy Lyons (or O'Lyons, Delyon etc.) Billy usually pleads for his life, by saying that he has a wife and kids to support. His children are never named, though his wife is named Delia in the Grateful Dead's version.

The history behind the characters' names is another issue of debate. One source for Stag's name has a direct link to the Mississippi River Delta. There was a family named Lee who ran the Lee Line boats on the Mississippi River. In David Dodd's annotation of Grateful Dead lyrics, he quotes Richard E. Buehler's article in Keystone Folklore Quarterly, who stated that, "'Many of the Lee Line boats were named for members of the Lee family, and one of them was Stacker Lee.'" note 3 . He goes on to discuss the historical evidence of such a boat, because it is the name of Edna Ferber's showboat in her book, Show Boat. The Stacker Lee for whom the boat was named was a former Confederate soldier, and it seems doubtful that he would be the bad man immortalized in song. One source thought the true bad man of folklore was actually the illegitimate son of this man. note 4 . If the river boat is the true source, it is more likely that the inspiration was through seeing the boat's name by dock hands or those on shore seeing it pass. Many blues songs used the railroad names that the singer would see on the sides of boxcars to invoke certain images, so the river boat's could have served the same purpose.

Though the river boat's name may have been the source of the myth or at least the character's name, there is historical evidence of a man whose name and deeds resemble those of the character in the songs. On December 28, 1895, the St. Louis Globe Democrat contained an article on the murder of William Lyons. He was shot in the abdomen by Lee Sheldon in a saloon owned by Bill Curtis. They were said to be friends, until a political argument ensued and they became upset with each other. Lyons took Sheldon's hat and refused to give it back, so Sheldon shot Lyons with his revolver. At the end of the article, it is mentioned that, "Sheldon is also known as 'Stag' Lee." note 5 . This certainly seems to be a potential source for the myth, since the two main characters are both involved. Besides the characters, some of the myth is present as well. Every tale of Stagger Lee portrays him as being a cold-hearted killer, and this is rooted in history as well. The article says that, "when his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away." note 6 . This is the end of the history behind the myth. The real Lee Sheldon was promptly arrested. He was tried twice the first trial ended in a hung jury, and in the second, he was convicted. He served time, and died in the nineteen tens. This last part diverges from the myth. The police are usually scared to go after Stag, and, when they do arrest him, he is promptly hung. Though this newspaper article is certainly historically accurate, it is contradicted in Lawrence Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness, when he says that, "Charles Hatter of Coahoma County, Mississippi, remembered first singing of Stagolee's exploits in 1895, while Will Starks, also a resident of the Mississippi Delta, initially heard the Stagolee saga in 1897 from a man who had learned it in the labor camps of St. Louis." note 7 . Though these seem to coincide with the historical character, they are probably more fanciful memory or an attempt at claiming original authorship than of strict historical accuracy. If they are trusted, they may suggest that Lee Sheldon knew of the tale, and adopted the nickname "Stag" to instill a sense of fear in those he was dealing with, though there is no evidence to support this theory. The songs do add evidence to the argument against the Lee Line boat though, because they predate her commissioning by ten and eight years, respectively.

Mississippi John Hurt's version of Stack O' Lee Blues is considered a definitive version of the song, perhaps because it is simply so well known or because it contains most of the elements included in the later versions. Though his version is more a ballad than a blues, as stated in the liner notes concerning it in the Smithsonian release The Blues, it does follow certain blues constructions. It is based on a twelve bar progression and follows an a-b-c line structure in the verses, with the c line always the same line of, "That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee." Hurt was a blues singer, though a lot of his influence came from the songster tradition, and he showed this in his various ballads concerning folk characters like Stag and John Henry. Hurt's version adds two important elements to the historical events. One, he specifies the hat as being a Stetson. The Stetson hat certainly invokes images of the lawless old west, and adds to Stag's personality. Most later versions also specify that the hat is a Stetson. Another addition to the myth is the fear of Stag by the police, which is introduced to tradition through Hurt's version. He opens his version with, "Police officer, how can it be? / You can 'rest everybody but cruel Stack O' Lee." Most later versions also have the police afraid to arrest Stag because they fear him so.

As with many other blues songs, Stagger Lee eventually made it to R&B and rock and roll. The earliest version of Stagger Lee as neither a blues nor a white folk song, and an obvious bridge to the later rock versions, was Lloyd Price's version, which was a hit in 1959. In it, he has Stag and Billy gambling in the dark. The fatal argument ensues over an argument about Stag's roll of the dice. Stag threw a seven, and Billy swore that his roll was an eight. Stag gets upset because Billy won his money and, perhaps more importantly, his Stetson hat. Stag goes home and gets his .44. He goes to a bar, and finding Billy there, shoots him from across the bar.

In the 1960s, blues performers finally got their moment at the forefront of popular music. As folk/acoustic music became popular, a search began for the old folk performers. Blues was seen (appropriately so) as an expression of folk tradition, and many of the blues greats were brought out to perform for folk and blues festivals around the country. Among these performers whose careers were resurrected was Mississippi John Hurt. Though the song "Stagger Lee" never really fell from recording popularity, after the blues revival of the mid 60's and the success of Price's version, there was a definite resurgence in its popularity. The Grateful Dead, active members of the 60's folk scene and frequent performers and reworkers of folk and blues songs, were one of the most popular groups to retell the story of cruel Stag. Robert Hunter, the folk performer, poet, and frequent lyricist for the Grateful Dead, penned a version of the folk tale for their 1978 record, Shakedown Street. As he did for the folk tale of Casey Jones ten years earlier, Hunter retold a classic story, though he replaced some of the rough blues edge with his poetic beauty. His version is based on traditional elements of the story, though the words within the lines themselves are reworked so they express Hunter's style of storytelling. The characters are Stagger Lee, Billy DeLyon, Delia DeLyon (Billy's wife,) and Baio, the police officer. Hunter's version, originally penned as "Delia DeLyon and Staggerlee," begins with the line, "1940, Xmas eve, with a full moon over town." This line has three very significant elements, which each trace to different sources: one is the first word, 1940 it places the events well ahead of their historical occurrence, if we trust the St. Louis newspaper of 1895 as the source of the tale. However, the next two words do suggest the historical events. The murder in St. Louis took place on the evening of December 27. This is too close to the day on which Hunter places the events to be simply coincidence. The third element of this introductory line, the "full moon over town," is similar to Lloyd Price's version, where his version introduces the events by saying, "The night was clear and the moon was yellow." As Hunter's version progresses, we hear very little new material. Billy DeLyon rolled "lucky dice / won Stagger Lee's Stetson hat." Baio, the police officer, is scared to arrest Stagger Lee. He fears Stag and his gun, which, in this version, is a .45. One new element to the story is the character of Delia, though previous versions make references to her, usually when Billy begs for his life. In Hunter's version, Billy never has a chance to beg for his life, but his wife gets involved after his death. She wants Stag brought to justice, and, when Baio is afraid to do it, she demands a gun and goes to get him herself. She goes to the bar (in this case it is called DeLyon's Club) and asks Stag to buy her a drink. "As Stagger Lee lit a cigarette, she shot him in the balls." She then has him dragged to city hall, where she has Baio hang him. Though Hunter's story borrows from blues tradition, he closes the song with an acknowledgment of this tradition. He freely admits that his story isn't new:

Hunter places the song in a time many years after the events traditionally are said to have occured, but he makes up for this by stating that this is not a retelling of the same old story, but a new one, in which Delia sings one of the earlier versions (though not literally, since there is no evidence of a song by the title "Look out Staggerlee".)

Though Stagger Lee is primarily a character of song, he returns in other forms of African-American artistic expression. Julius Lester's compilation Black Folktales includes a telling of the Stagolee story. His version is a short story which is, by far, the "baddest" version of the story. Not only does Stag kill Billy, Stag tells him that, after Billy is dead, he's going to move in with Billy's wife. With this, he refutes Billy's traditional plea for his life, which was that he had a wife and kids to support. Stag then kills the police officer who tries to arrest him. The police finally think they can get him when he's drunk and passed out one night. They slip a rope around his neck and this wakes him up. He agrees to go downtown with them, but, when they try to hang him, his neck just won't break. He sits there on the noose for half an hour until he starts complaining that the rope tickles. They let him down and set him free. He then goes on to perform various exploits, including standing off against Death, by saying that he is not strong enough to kill Stag. When Stag finally does die, he obviously goes straight to hell. Once there, he starts the cycle all over. He begins terrorizing hell, to the point where he claims he's going to run the devil out of hell and take the place over for himself. note 8 .

Stagger Lee was a member of the urban blues tradition. Though many of the versions of his tale were done by rural performs, the story is still of an urban man who comes from the bottom of black society. "Like the protagonists of 'Frankie Baker' and 'DuPree and Betty Blues,' Stackolee comes out of an urban scene-a world of pimps, prostitutes, gambling, drinking, fighting, and death. He is as far removed from the barnyard and the fields as John Henry is from the plough and the scythe." 9 Though Stag was an urban creature (the historical "Stag" Lee Sheldon lived in St. Louis,) his myth and legend certainly spread both throughout the whole country and through the various contemporary and later forms of popular music. Though it seems like a rough story which would usually scare some performers away, many performers do it simply because it is an accepted form. People don't overreact to his violence as they do in other songs because it has so much history and tradition. Also, most performers show interest in Stag but don't really defend his actions. The only person to ever openly promote Stag was Bobby Seale, a Black Panther and not a singer or performer. He "named his son after Stagger Lee, who he said was a positive role model for black men." 10 Though I question this assertion, it certainly does seem to add just another layer to the vast history of Stag's story. He is a mysterious character, but this mystery is what attracts people to him. There is just enough known about him that someone can tell his story without having to teach the audience the story before expanding on it. Also, though some versions are more popular than others, no single version is considered to be the real version. Each is simply a different version. This leaves open the opportunity for another writer to expand on the myth and add a little more to the overall saga. Each new version does seem to augment the vast tradition behind Stagger Lee. It still seems a little odd, though, that one of America's greatest forms of folk expression should stem from a gambler's fight. I wonder if those men knew that there actions would cause us, a hundred years later, to "know" more about them perhaps than they knew about themselves.

1 Davis, Francis, The History of the Blues (New York: Hyperion, 1995) 40. BACK to text

2 Lester, Julius, Black Folktales (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1969) 113. BACK to text

3 Buehler, Richard E., "Stacker Lee: a Partial Investigation into the Historicity of a Negro Murder Ballad," Keystone Folklore Quarterly Fall 1967: 187-191. (as quoted in Dodd, David The Annotated "Stagger Lee" , online, U of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Available:

5 Stamler, Paul J., e-mail to Tony Kullen, February 26, 1997. BACK to text

7 Levine, Lawrence W, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977) 413. BACK to text

8 Lester 113-135. 9Baker, Houston A. Jr, Long Black Song (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1972) 37-38. 10 "Results and Answer Key for Golden Oldies Lyrics Quiz #34," online, Available: BACK to text


Baker, Houston A. Jr. Long Black Song .Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1972.

Buehler, Richard E. "Stacker Lee: a Partial Investigation into the Historicity of a Negro Murder Ballad," Keystone Folklore Quarterly . Fall 1967. (as quoted in Dodd, David The Annotated "Stagger Lee" , online, U of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Available:

Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

Hunter, Robert. A Box of Rain. New York: Viking, 1990.

Lester, Julius. Black Folktales. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1969.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Stagger lee returns on wax

Documenting the earliest incarnation of a song inspired by ‘ Stag’ Lee is a tricky, if not, impossible task. There are reports of a ‘field song’ called ‘Stak-o-lee’ performed by African-American laborers, but, as is common among folk songs of the era, no one is identified as its composer.

By the twenties, a few recorded versions – all instrumentals – emerged. The first, by a dance band called Waring’s Pennsylvanians became a hit in 1923. Within a year, a few other versions followed – including a version by Lovie Austin (called Skeeg-a-Lee Blues) that contained lyrics. Now, the listener could hear a detailed account of the murderous act that gave birth to a local legend.

As the years floated past, fans of blues and dance music were fed a steady diet of new takes on the Stagerlee saga. Such diverse figures as Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy, Ma Rainey, Woody Guthrie, Louis Armstrong, Pat Boone and Cab Calloway played a role in developing Stager lee’s legendary status. But it took a Louisiana crooner with personality to make it a chart topper.

Lloyd Price’s rendition of Stagger Lee draws heavily on the swamp blues of Louisiana.

Bayonet Charge

By 6:00, there was only Maudet and five Legionnaires left they each had one bullet left. The six formed up, fired their last volley and charged the Mexicans with bayonets. The Mexicans fired and Legionnaire Catteau, a Belgian, threw himself in front of Lieutenant Maudet, but Maudet was killed by two bullets Catteau fell dead with 19 bullets in his body. The others all received gunshot wounds and the enemy converged on the survivors, beating them to the ground. Colonel Milan finally managed to stop his troops from exacting their vengeance and ordered the two surviving Legionnaires to surrender, but they would agree only if they were allowed to keep their weapons, have safe passage home and bury the body of their captain, Jean Danjou, with honor. The colonel, out of respect, agreed to these terms.

James Baldwin’s body of work represents a strong example of the intersection between politics and poetry. His keen sense of Black culture and how it bumped into White culture is reflected in his novels, essays, screenplays, speeches, and poems – he knew the context of racism and translated the context into several different art forms. While many were able to access his essays in publications such as The Progressive and by reading his novels once the first was published in 1953 at the time it was written, Lynn Orilla Scott and D. Quentin Miller bring to life his work today. In their synopses of trends in literary criticism of Baldwin’s body of work, both illustrate how the relevance of Baldwin’s body of work is resurging so that we, in 2019, can access his art in order to understand the present day (Lynn Orilla Scott D.Quentin Miller). In that spirit, this essay will analyze his poem, “Staggerlee wonders”, to illustrate how Baldwin is able to weave together politics and poetry in order for his readers to see how Black and White culture clash with each other.

Biographical and Historical Context

Born in 1924, James Baldwin experienced the Great Depression first hand and intensely: Baldwin came of age in Harlem in a family of 11. In biographical interviews, he reveals that he did not experience overt discrimination based on race until his late teens, after he graduated from high school and worked in New Jersey laying railroad tracks (Field). To add to his mystic, Baldwin served as a preacher at a Pentecostal church while in high school in Harlem one of his teachers in high school was another aspiring writer Countee Cullen (Field J. Baldwin, No Name in the Street).

By 1958, at the age of 34, Baldwin was an established American writer. His life as a writer enabled him to meet several well-known thinkers such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957, just as King was in the midst of writing Strive Toward Freedom (Field). Baldwin found King to be “a younger, much-loved, and menaced brother” who was “very slight and vulnerable to be taking on such tremendous odds” (Oates 128). There was a sense of awe of King by Baldwin, who, a few years after their first meeting, was present during a sermon that King preached in Atlanta after King had stood trial in Montgomery, Alabama. In the sermon, King surmised that Whites, like those who were part of the trial, “who knowingly defended wrong,” were ruled by fear, to which Baldwin reflected: “He [King] made the trials of these White people far more vivid than anything he himself might have endured” (Oates 156). In several historical accounts of King’s life and of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin emerges as a muse, a critic, and an activist (L. V. Baldwin, There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. L. V. Baldwin, Behind the Public Veil: The Humanness of Martin Luther King Jr. Oates Payne).

Baldwin, the Poet

Nikki Finney, who wrote the introduction to the most recent edition of Baldwin’s poetry called Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, argues that Baldwin’s writing style was poetic in and of itself, and, further, that he wrote poetry to distill his thinking (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems). Baldwin’s need to distill is supported by his prolific writing. For example, by simply reading the first paragraph of the two-page epilogue to No Name in the Street, the reader is exposed to the breadth and depth of Baldwin’s reflection upon the 1960’s. Read with a 2019 lens, Baldwin’s perspective is utterly profound:

This book has been much delayed by trials, assassinations, funerals, and despair. Nor is the American crisis, which is part of a global, historical crisis, likely to resolve itself soon. An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives. No matter, so long as we accept that our responsibility is to the newborn: the acceptance of responsibility contains the key to the necessary evolving skill. (J. Baldwin, No Name in the Street 196)

His use of metaphor brings to life the intense cultural evolutions that America experiences at it evolved from its independence in 1776 until now, and easily defines our role in the evolution: we need to support the evolution. Or we readers need to serve as midwives in America’s re-birth to follow Baldwin’s metaphor.

This re-birth that Baldwin sees can be found in “Staggerlee wonders,” a poem that was originally published in 1982, just a few years prior to Baldwin’s death in 1987. In this poem, Baldwin takes on the voice of Stagger Lee, who is legendary (Brown). One legend has it that Stagger was a pimp in St. Louis and that he shot Billy, another Black man from the underbelly of society, because Billy stole Stagger’s white Stetson hat. It is a legend pregnant with symbolism and is revisited over and over again through generations of African Americans (Brown). White folks celebrate the legend in songs, including those by The Grateful Dead and Amy Winehouse (the Dead have a twist on the story where a woman takes down Stagger, for killing “my Billy”) (Hobart Andrewes The Annotated “Stagger Lee”). On the one hand, this is a legend that reinforces the White stereotype that Black people will kill each other over a hat – especially Black people who live in the city especially Black people who are pimps especially Black people who drink while gambling in the wee hours of the morning. On the other hand, Stagger can represent truth and justice, because sometimes in the oral history of Stagger Lee, Billy is a police officer. Baldwin presents this representation of truth and justice masterfully (Miller).

The Poem: Staggerlee wonders

Baldwin’s “Staggerlee wonders” poem is seventeen pages, written in four parts, and alternates between statements by Staggerlee and imagined conversations between Staggerlee and White folks such as “the Great Man’s Lady” – these conversations are indicated by italicized words: “Ma! he’s making eyes at me.” Taken as a whole, the poem serves as a near-perfect mirror of how minority and majority cultures bump into each other and tumble with each other and how Black people persist through their oppression by White people.

The first part begins with Staggerlee wondering what “pink and alabaster” people think of Black people. Baldwin poignantly uses the term “nigger” to refer to Black people, emphasizing the negative origins of the word, after all, it is Staggerlee who is wondering ­– Staggerlee, the legend, whose story emphasizing negative stereotypes of the other is told over and over again in song and verse (Jerry Mencken Motley and Craig-Henderson). While this dehumanizing term is used for humans that Staggerlee relates to best, “they” is used to explain a culture that he at once understands, yet does not understand. In setting this stage about how Staggerlee wonders about Whites, Baldwin sequences observations about how they (White people) interact with the world:

They have never honoured [sic] a single treaty

made with anyone, anywhere.

The walls of their cities

are as foul as their children. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 4)

This section ends with a conversation between Staggerlee and a White lady:

No, said the Great Man’s Lady,

I always feel that’s killing somebody.

Well, what about capital punishment?

I think the death penalty helps.

don’t you cry for me! (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 6)

This opening part gives portraits of the hypocrisy that sometimes exists with oppression, particularly with the image of who is most likely on Death Row: Black men who White people are okay killing. In this case of hypocrisy, Baldwin illustrates how absurd it can be to fight for the rights of the unborn, yet not fight for the rights of the living. Why not stand up for those who land on Death Row, especially given what we know about police discrimination and, in particular, unlawful practices in the South? (Alexander Stevenson). This illustration sets the stage for the subsequent parts that lead the reader through the evolution from this oppression.

Part two begins with Staggerlee wondering “how niggers should help themselves,” again from a majority perspective. The lyrics to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” are used to emphasize that a common answer for the majority is for divine intervention. Or maybe the hope that the minority would just disappear (Brown). Yet, Staggerlee moves on to emphasize the difference between he and the majority culture:

My days are not their days.

My ways are not their ways. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 7)

Then Staggerlee begins to wonder about the notion of color blindness, which when one takes into account that this was written in the early 1980’s, highlights a concept that began to emerge in the popular press by people who aimed to raise awareness about race (and to quell racial incidents) (Vogel). This notion of color blindness led Staggerlee to wonder about what they do not want to see:

What is it that this people

Surely, they cannot be so deluded

as to imagine that their crimes are original? (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 8)

After a list of ways Whites have attacked Blacks, Staggerlee wonders whether or not they realize that “we are all liars and cowards” but then a thought occurs to him:

Then, perhaps they imagine

That their crimes are not crimes? (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 9)

These philosophical questions bring to the forefront one theme of the poem: the hypocrisy of the majority White culture in America. Baldwin keenly points out that Staggerlee is not engaged in these thoughts to clarify the beliefs of the majority:

They know that no one will appear

they know it, just as they know

that the earth has opened before

and will open again, just as they know

that their empire is falling, is doomed,

nothing can hold it up, nothing.

We are not talking about belief. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 10)

Rather, Staggerlee takes the reader step-by-step through the evolution of America that occurred in the mid- and late-20 th century, acknowledging that change has occurred. And Staggerlee anticipates the change will not stop: the majority will become the majority-minority population by the mid-21 st century (Frey).

Part three – the shortest part – begins in a similar tone to part two, but acknowledges a change: that “the niggers made, make it…the niggers are still here.” In this section, Staggerlee is wondering about how Whites think about Black survival, and ultimately debates what survival means. Staggerlee illustrates one survival technique using a character named Beulah, who works for “the alabaster lady of the house” – she “gives me a look, sucks her teeth and rolls her eyes in the direction of the lady’s back, and keeps on keeping on” (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 11). This alludes to a shift in the conversation between Beulah and the alabaster lady, who “changes the subject to Education, or Full Employment, or the Welfare rolls” as if there was a start to building a more equal relationship:

We know how you feel. You can trust us.

Yeah. I would like to believe you.

But we are not talking about belief. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 13)

Staggerlee is acknowledging that the road to restoring the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor is long and hard the road is not about belief, but about action.

The fourth and final part represents a shift from Staggerlee thinking about the “Great Man” to thinking about the “Kinsmen” in this life.

Ah! Kinsmen, if I could make you see

the crime is not what you have done to me! (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 17)

The reflections that Staggerlee cites in this part explain how White domination is ending and how his people survived:

our ancestors spoke to us, and we listened,

and we tried to make you hear life in our song (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 19)

Yet, in the last lines of the poem, Staggerlee knows there is not hope even if there is kinship and focuses on “life everlasting” and to

…decline to imitate the Son of the Morning,

and rule in Hell. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 19)

This final part as a whole ties together much of Staggerlee’s thinking throughout the poem and grounds his life experience in that of his ancestors, creating imagery that makes the reader recall all of the wonders of Africa. There is a strong sense is that White domination is ending in Staggerlee’s mind – literally and figuratively.

Every stanza in the seventeen-page-long poem “Staggerlee wonders” can be unpacked to reveal how Black and White cultures clash with each other throughout American history, and in particular throughout contemporary American history – about the period of time that Staggerlee is reflecting upon (1950s through the 1970s), about the period of time Baldwin wrote the piece (early 1980s), and about the present day (2019). It is a stunning example of how a poem can be political and remain beautifully poetic. It recalls heartache, yet raises up humanity. It gives White people the benefit of the doubt, yet also questions whether or not the oppressor will really change. What’s more, Baldwin does so without using the word Black or White. Rather “nigger” and “Great Man” and “pink alabaster lady” are used to describe the people who are in Staggerlee’s reflections.

Given this significant example of a poem that is political, there are only two published literary critiques of “Staggerlee wonders”: a comparison of Staggerlee in Baldwin’s and Toni Morrison’s work (Miller) and a quick analysis within a broader conversation about the legend of Stagolee. [1] This poem seems like gold for literary critiques. For instance, there might be much to learn from the fact that Baldwin does not use “Black” or “White” throughout the piece, which in and of itself is a strong statement on social constructions. Baldwin makes a statement about how language can be used powerfully to illustrate truth and justice. Nikki Finney’s Introduction to the Jimmy’s Blues and other poems – by itself, an example of the power of language – explains the impact of Baldwin’s language:

I do not believe James Baldwin can be wholly read without first understanding White men and their penchant for tyranny and “unrelenting brutality.” If you read Baldwin without this truth, you will mistake Baldwin’s use of the work nigger as how he saw himself, instead of that long-suffering character, imagined, invented, and marched to the conveyor belt as if it was the hanging tree, by the founding fathers of the Republic, in order that they might hold on for as long as possible to “the very last White country the world will ever” (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems xiv)

Finney’s framework leaves no doubt that Baldwin’s poem “Staggerlee wonders” is a political statement about Black-White relations. Indeed, Brown suggests that Baldwin might have used Bobby Seale, who was integral to the rise of the Black Panthers during the 1970s, as his mental model for Staggerlee. If so, this is a strong political statement given the Black Panthers’ effect on politics, which at one point led then Governor Ronald Regan of California (Republican), to call for a ban on guns. In other words, Black people led White people to ban guns, a concept that seems foreign today when many White people refuse to give up their Second Amendment right to own a gun.

As Baldwin is analyzed with this political lens, several other nuggets of contextual clues emerge within the notes peppered in his publications of the few scholars who analyzed “Staggerlee wonders”. For example, the politics that Baldwin engages in with “Staggerlee wonders” are the same the politics described in less-than-beautiful ways by Lee Atwater, who was Republican strategist – an advisor to Presidents Reagan and Bush in addition to serving as the Republican National Committee Chairman in the 1980s. Atwater was recorded in 1981 as saying:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’— that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] Blacks get hurt worse than Whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger’.” (Rick Perlstein, “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy,” Nation, 13 November 2012)

Atwater is explicit in his description about how Black and White culture clashes, so explicit that one cannot help by wonder: Can there be hope for America? Baldwin’s writing and his way of framing the two cultures give some rays of hope because of the poetic nature of it. A poem is not the likely place to confront race. Yet, this concept is exemplified in “Staggerlee wonders”, as the poem disarms readers and makes them think. The prose clarifies that Baldwin listened to the various meanings of the legend described within other forms of art – music and oral histories – and continued to ask questions about the meaning of the legend. Then, Baldwin created a poem illustrating his thoughts on race as the politics of America ebbed and flowed during his lifetime.

The nature of poetry and politics has a foundational question: when is poetry political? If politics is a fight for change, when we know the context of the poet, we begin to understand how the poet translated the political context into art and, therefore, the poem becomes political. A deeper analysis might be to understand who was able to access the art (in this case a poem): where was it published? Did librarians buy it and include it in the stacks? Another analysis could be to understand the impact of art. For example, organizational theorists have introduced the multiple stages of grief as a way to understand the change process (Kübler-Ross). And, to manage grief, sometimes a poem is in order.

For example, a recent biography of Baldwin by Joseph Vogel analyzes Baldwin’s life in the 1980’s. At the time, Vogel argues, Baldwin felt a strong force pulling him back to America from France, where he sought intermittent sanctuary throughout his life. Baldwin needed this sanctuary in the 1970’s as he needed time to reflect on the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s. In one interview given during the 1970’s Baldwin offers thoughts about intersectionality, a term that summarizes his life as a gay, Black man rather succinctly:

I’m in the process of experimenting. I say a new language. I might say a new morality, which, in my terms, comes to the same thing. And that’s on all levels­––the level of color, the level of identity, the level of sexual identity, what love means, especially in consumer society, for example. Everything is in question, according to me. (Vogel 25)

Baldwin’s poem and the chance to analyze it offers us the chance to take steps to understand the long and deep history of racism in America and to read beyond the canon of literature that is present throughout the curricula in high schools, in colleges, and in graduate schools – even when you are an activist scholar. And, in perhaps the best way to honor the legacy of Baldwin’s body of work, to use the fodder that Baldwin gives the reader to identify ways to be a co-conspirator in making the dream of a just society – a society where its members care for each other regardless of race – a reality.


Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010,

Andrewes, Simon. “The Story of the Story of Stagger Lee.” International Socialism (00208736), no. 154, 2017, p. 179. edo.

Baldwin, James. Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems. Beacon Press, 2014.

—. No Name in the Street. Dial Press, 1972.

Baldwin, Lewis V. Behind the Public Veil: The Humanness of Martin Luther King Jr. Fortress Press, 2016.

—. There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fortress Press, 1991.

Brown, Cecil. Stagolee Shot Billy. Harvard University Press, 2003.

D.Quentin Miller. “Trends in James Baldwin Criticism 2010–13.” James Baldwin Review, Vol 3, Iss 1, Pp 186-202 (2017), no. 1, 2017, p. 186. edsdoj, EBSCOhost, doi:10.7227/JBR.3.12.

Field, Douglas. James Baldwin. Liverpool University Press, 2011.

Frey, W. H. Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America. Brookings Institution Press, 2014,

Hobart, Mike. “The Life of a Song: Stagger Lee.” The Financial Times, 2018.

Jerry, Anthony Russell. “The First Time I Heard the Word: The ‘N‐Word’ as a Present and Persistent Racial Epithet.” Transforming Anthropology, vol. 26, no. 1, Apr. 2018, pp. 36–49.

Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth. On Death and Dying. Scribner, 1969,

Lynn Orilla Scott. “Trends in James Baldwin Criticism 2001–10.” James Baldwin Review, Vol 2, Iss 0, Pp 168-196 (2016), no. 0, 2016, p. 168. EBSCOhost, doi:10.7227/JBR.2.11.

Mencken, H. L. “Designations for Colored Folk.” American Speech, vol. 19, no. 3, Oct. 1944, p. 161. edb.

Miller, D. Quentin. “Playing a Mean Guitar: The Legacy of Staggerlee in Baldwin and Morrison.” James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays, edited by Lovalerie King and Lynn Orilla Scott, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 121–48.

Motley, Carol M., and Kellina M. Craig-Henderson. “Epithet or Endearment? Examining Reactions Among Those of the African Diaspora to an Ethnic Epithet.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 37, no. 6, July 2007, pp. 944–63.

Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. HarperCollins, 1982.

Payne, C. M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. University of California Press, 1996.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau, 2014. edshlc.

The Annotated “Stagger Lee.” Accessed 8 Oct. 2018.

Vogel, Joseph. James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era. University of Illinois Press, 2018.

[1] (Brown 206–11) This citation also highlights how the legend of Staggerlee also has varying spellings of his name.

‘Stagger Lee’: The Strange Story Of A Folk Legend

This blues classic has gone by many names, but perhaps the best known version is Lloyd Price’s ’Stagger Lee’ that topped the US Hot 100 in February 1959.

It was originally called Stack O’Lee Blues and over the years it has been called “Stackalee,” “Stackolee,” “Stack-A-Lee,” “Stackerlee,” “Stagger Lee,” “Staggerlee,” “Stag-O-lee,” and “Stagolee.” Perhaps the best-known version is the one by Lloyd Price that topped the US Hot 100 on February 9, 1959 – his was “Stagger Lee.” Wilson Pickett had a US hit with it in 1967 and Tommy Roe in 1971.

The song was first published in 1911, and was first recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. In 1925 Ma Rainey recorded the second version of “Stack O’Lee Blues.” It had actually been doing the rounds of the South, traveling up and down the Mississippi River, since the turn of the century.

The origins of the song date back to 1895 and a story in The St. Louis Globe-Democrat. “William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor, Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee.”

Billy Lyons later died from his wounds. Lee Sheldon’s first trial ended in a hung jury at the second, he was convicted and served time he died in 1912.

There are well over 60 known recorded versions, and countless others that were never recorded. Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording is considered the definitive version by blues scholars. Other versions have included Furry Lewis (1927), Long Clive Reed (1927), Frank Hutchison (1927), Woody Guthrie (1956), Lonnie Donegan (1956), Taj Mahal (1969), and Bob Dylan (1993). Cab Calloway and His Orchestra recorded a song entitled “Stack O Lee Blues,” but that one has nothing lyrically to do with the original.

More modern versions have been done by Prince Buster & The Trojans. (They recorded a ska/reggae version in 1990.) Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds did a version of the song on their 1996 album Murder Ballads, while The Black Keys recorded a song entitled “Stack Shot Billy” on their 2004 album Rubber Factory.

Follow our Blues For Beginners to hear more influential blues classics.

Lloyd Price, Singer And Early Rock Influence, Dies At 88

Lloyd Price appears backstage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, in New York, on March 14, 2011. Price died Monday in New Rochelle, New York.

NEW YORK (AP) — Singer-songwriter Lloyd Price, an early rock 'n roll star and enduring maverick whose hits included such up-tempo favorites as "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "Personality" and the semi-forbidden "Stagger Lee," has died. He was 88.

Price died Monday at a long-term care facility in New Rochelle, New York, of complications from diabetes, his wife, Jacqueline Price, told The Associated Press on Saturday.

Lloyd Price, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, was among the last survivors of a post-World War II scene in New Orleans that anticipated the shifts in popular music and culture leading to the rise of rock in the mid-1950s. Along with Fats Domino and David Bartholomew among others, Price fashioned a deep, exuberant sound around the brass and swing of New Orleans jazz and blues that placed high on R&B charts and eventually crossed over to white audiences.

"Very important part of Rock history. He was BEFORE Little Richard!" rock singer and E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt said Saturday on Twitter. "Lawdy Miss Clawdy of 1952 has a legit claim as the first Rock hit. Righteous cat. Enormous talent."

Price's nickname was "Mr. Personality," fitting for a performer with a warm smile and a tenor voice to match. But he was far more than an engaging entertainer. He was unusually independent for his time, running his own record label even before such stars as Frank Sinatra did the same, holding on to his publishing rights, and serving as his own agent and manager. He would often speak of the racial injustices he endured, calling his memoir "sumdumhonkey" and writing on his Facebook page during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests that behind his "affable exterior" was "a man who is seething."

Born in Kenner, Louisiana, one of 11 siblings, Price had been singing in church and playing piano since childhood. He was in his late teens when a local DJ's favorite catchphrase, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," helped inspire him to write his boundary-breaking first hit, which he worked on in his mother's fried fish restaurant.

Music News

Ed Ward, Rock Critic And Historian, Dead At 72

Featuring Domino's trademark piano trills, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" hit No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1952, sold more than 1 million copies and became a rock standard, covered by Elvis Presley and Little Richard among others. But Price would have mixed feelings about the song's broad appeal, later remembering how local officials in the Jim Crow South resisted letting both blacks and whites attend his shows.

Price was drafted and spent the mid-1950s in military service in Korea. He began a career restart with the 1957 ballad "Just Because," and hit the top with the brassy, pop-oriented "Stagger Lee," one of the catchiest, most celebratory songs ever recorded about a barroom murder.

Written by Price, "Stagger Lee" was based on a 19th century fight between two Black men — Lee Shelton, sometimes known as Stag Lee, and Billy Lyons — that ended with Shelton shooting and killing his rival. Their ever-changing legend was appearing in songs by the 1920s, and has inspired artists ranging from Woody Guthrie and Duke Ellington to Bob Dylan and the Clash.

Price's version opened with a few spoken words that had the understated tension of a crime novel: "The night was clear, the moon was yellow, and the leaves came tumbling . down." The band jumps in and Price shouts out the story of Stagger Lee and Billy fighting over a game of dice, concluding with a bullet from Stagger Lee's 44 passing through Billy and breaking the bartender's glass. "Go Stagger Lee!" a chorus chants throughout.

The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart early in 1959, but not everyone was entertained. "American Bandstand" host Dick Clark worried the song was too violent for his teen-centered show and pressed Price to revise it: For "Bandstand" watchers and some future listeners, Stagger Lee and Billy peacefully resolve their dispute.

"I had to go make up some lyrics about Stagger Lee and Billy being in some kind of squabble about a girl," Price told Billboard in 2013. "It didn't make any sense at all. It was ridiculous."

Price followed with the top 10 hits "Personality" and "I'm Going To Get Married" and the top 20 songs "Lady Luck" and "Question." He fared no better than many of his contemporaries once the Beatles arrived in the U.S. in 1964, but he found his way into other professions through a wide range of friends and acquittances. He lived for a time in the same Philadelphia apartment complex as Wilt Chamberlain and Joe Frazier and, along with boxing promoter Don King, helped stage the 1973 "Thrilla in Manila" between Frazier and Muhammad Ali and the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" championship fight between Ali and George Foreman. He was also a home builder, a booking agent, an excellent bowler and the creator of a line of food products.

His career in music continued, sporadically. He and his business partner Harold Logan started a label in the early 1960s, Double L Records, that gave an early break to Wilson Pickett, and they also ran a New York nightclub. But after Logan was murdered, in 1969, Price became so disheartened he eventually moved to Nigeria and didn't return until the 1980s. He would become a favorite on oldies tours, performing with Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis among others.

He settled in New York with his wife, but was not forgotten back home. A street in Kenner was renamed Lloyd Price Avenue and for years Kenner has celebrated an annual Lloyd Price Day.

Price would credit clean living and steady focus for his endurance.

"I never drank, smoked, used drugs or had bad habits," he told interviewer Larry Katz in 1998. "I'd drive a taxi cab to get me the food I need to live. I never was starstruck. I had 23 hit records and I never looked for the next record to hit. I never had that need that they had to be somebody. I just wanted to be."

Watch the video: Mississippi John Hurt - The Ballad Of Stagger Lee


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