Rock History 101: The Multiple Faces of “Stagger Lee”


    Trailing back to a previous List ‘Em article regarding cover songs, everything from tributary motives to bowdlerization to pure subconscious innocence preserves a folksy tradition of recreating earlier work, thereby making it one’s own. The cycle of covering older songs, for whatever the reason, has continued for decades. Most commonly seen in a nostalgic light, encompassing everything from pre-Billboard 45s and porch-played blues to ’80s pop, a reboot or a re-imagining can be stripped of pretense to selfish cores, or even hailed as a classic so much that the original creator sees fit to redo his own take in hindsight (see: “All Along the Watchtower”).

    I’ve expounded at great length on the subject of covers before, namely The Flaming Lips’ complete breakdown of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (oddly enough, a band named for two Carolina blues musicians). In this edition of Rock History 101, we’ll investigate another popular cover via timelines, a murder case, folk tales, blues legends, and then some — all for easy consumption, all for the sake of posterity. We’ll start at the end of December 2006 with a half-naked Christina Ricci and one bad motherfucker named Samuel L. Jackson.

    Mr. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Unthinkable, Snakes on a Plane) spent half a year learning blues guitar for his role in the gritty, deep-fried, and sexually electrifying Black Snake Moan — a film directed by Craig Brewer of Hustle & Flow fame, so named for the Blind Lemon Jefferson tune “That Black Snake Moan”. Among the extraordinary list of vulgar and “in your face” presences that Jackson has put to celluloid, the betrayed and God-fearing Lazarus Redd should be forever immortalized… if not for his attempt to purge Ricci’s nymphomania, then for his contribution to a covers list a mile long.


    The folk tune “Stagger Lee” — re-titled “Stackolee” for Black Snake Moan — is a popular blues track from the early 1900s, a lyrical retelling of Billy Lyons’ murder at the hands of ‘Stag’ Lee Sheldon in the winter of 1865. From Wikipedia:

    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.”

    Sources believe that similar songs existed prior to the late 1800s, and maybe even loaned their titles to Sheldon’s street persona amongst pimps of St. Louis. Despite this and Lee Sheldon’s now-infamous pimp archetype, “Stagger Lee” has been rendered in many fashions, even censored by Dick Clark for a time, with the first known recording of it (keeping current subject matter intact) by John Lomax in 1910.


    In a pivotal scene from the aforementioned film, Lazarus Redd introduces Ricci’s character (and an unusually packed bar full of patrons) to a pair of straight-up blues tracks: “Alice Mae” and “Stackolee”. Ricci gets to skankin’ on the dance floor, and our second song is semi-spoken from the perspective of Sheldon himself (a feat taken from R.L. Burnside’s attempt in years prior):

    While not necessarily a definitive version, Jackson’s “Stackolee” revisited has recently sent my journalistic research into high gear, and while Sheldon himself wound up dying in prison of symptoms attributed to tuberculosis, his legend vaguely lives on amongst the numerous melodic incarnations bearing his namesake. Here before you is an abridged list of more popularly recognized turns, brought to you by your friendly neighborhood bloggers here at CoS.

    Lloyd Price – “Stagger Lee” (1959)

    Before Dick Clark was pushing inevitable death, he played host to some of America’s greatest pop tunes via the television program American Bandstand. Due to its family-friendly demographic, Clark had become concerned that Price’s “original” cover would be too violent for viewing audiences. Under pressure from Clark, Price altered his live performance, substituting murder with a heated argument and an eventual settling of differences.

    This obvious censorship did not negatively affect Lloyd Price’s reputation, as the unedited song still landed on the Billboard Hot 100 at #1. Reminds me of the time I first heard Buckcherry’s “Crazy Bitch” over the convenience store radio and an elderly female customer bolted toward the exit during its chorus. Some people can’t take a little profanity.


    Dr. John – “Stack-A-Lee” (1972)

    Placed on the legendary Dr. John’s classic record, Dr. John’s Gumbo, this ’72 recording goes the way of New Orleans jazz flavor, keeping a more traditional feel to the track’s early folk nature. A notable aside would be the indication of title change, as “Stack O’Lee” was a common pronunciation during WWII-era America; it is believed that this implies Sheldon was as gargantuan and tall as the smokestack of a ship (namely, the Robert E. Lee).

    If you ask me, I’d take this especially upbeat version to Price’s R&B element any day.


    Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Stagger Lee” (1996)

    Appropriately titled Murder Ballads, this ’96 record by the unmistakably dark sonic velvet that is Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds takes a much darker, much more elaborate turn…as the slightly homoerotic perspective of a neutral bystander. Our available music video is given the desaturated, gray-scale treatment, putting a storytelling-geared “Stagger Lee” on an Aronofsky’s Pi-style bent.

    Probably the most fittingly twisted rehash in the list, and none are left wanting, as it even includes some lines later borrowed again by Jackson.


    Pacific Gas & Electric – “Staggolee” (1970, re-released 2007)

    A B-side to “Are You Ready?” from the 1970 album of the same name, Pacific Gas & Electric’s rockin’ blues rendition brings the California act a little needed rediscovery. While the mood could be compared to Dr. John’s jazzy interpretation, PG&E make it decidedly theirs and marginally more ’70s rock. It’s reintroduced to the listening public on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 Grindhouse inclusion, Death Proof. If you’ve seen this movie, you know it fits the vibe indubitably.

    As always, leave it to Tarantino to find the perfect music for his oftentimes graphic films, which are in and of themselves commonly homages all their own.


    Concluding Thoughts

    Thus, we cycle back to a single prominent fact about blues music: From the eclecticism of Ghost World’s Pink Anderson placement to all the way back when Missouri was still a pimpin’ capital, there is no denying the longevity of the true-to-heart, painstakingly clear blues. It can be rugged, jam-packed, groovy, or even danceable, but the base compound for it all is nothing short of pure. The nature of covers in and of themselves — to add on and exaggerate, to refurbish and redefine — continues legends as far as they can be drawn out. Word of mouth wins again, in ways as different as each of the above songs.

    Go put on a blues record (and I do mean “record”); sink those choppers into down-home, no-substitutions-necessary blues. Your heart’ll thank you for it.