Stagger Lee

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Stagger Lee, Stagolee, Stackerlee, Stack O Lee, Stack-a-Lee, Lee Shelton

Maracas Thomas Wydler. Drums Jim Sclavunos. Piano Conway Savage.

Bass Martyn P. Screams Blixa Bargeld. Gun Shots Nick Cave. Organ Nick Cave. Vocals Nick Cave. Release Date February 5, Song Of Joy. Stagger Lee. Henry Lee. Lovely Creature. Travelling up and down the Mississippi between St Louis and New Orleans, he became well-known as a gambler, a hell-raiser and a ladies' man.

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He made a habit of fathering illegitimate children wherever his boat put in, often by black or mixed-race women. It's very unlikely that Shelton was really Stacker Lee's son - the dates and locations are all wrong for that - but he may well have adopted his nickname to hint at that possibility. Who could blame him for hinting that father was the glamorous son of a powerful, rich family?

The Lee Line also had a riverboat called the Stacker Lee, built in and named after the white cavalryman. It joined the fleet too late to influence Shelton's choice of nickname, but its regular trips between St Louis and Memphis may well have helped to spread his story's fame and spark new versions of the song.

Other boats from the Lee Line inspired blues songs of their own, most notably Charley Patton's Jim Lee Blues , but only the Stacker Lee came with a ready-made legend attached.

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The first records to exploit that legend were instrumentals by white dance bands. Duke Ellington's Washingtonians added their own recording of this instrumental in Rainey makes no attempt to tell the story of Billy Lyons' killing. Her Stack O'Lee is certainly a villain but his sin, like Albert's, is treating his woman badly.

It's clear from these verses that Hull casts Billy as a policeman - presumably a white policeman - and one who tries to arrest Stack on a trumped-up charge. It's also clear that Billy is a little afraid of Stack, and that Stack is confident enough to taunt this white authority figure to his face.

When the cowardly, unjust, copper forces Stack to kill him, it seems like an entirely excusable crime, and we join Hull in an indulgent chuckle when Stack returns to his old roguish ways in the song's final verse. This treatment of Billy may have been inspired by the fact that Lyons had once worked as a watchman - what we would call a security guard, and only one step removed from the police. Stag had long been an anti-hero in the work songs and folktales telling his story, and most of the records following Hull's would take that line too.

Most, but not quite all.

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He begins by berating the police for refusing to arrest Stack earlier and reminds us again and again just how cruel this bad man is. Stack may have felt Billy's theft of his Stetson obligated him to kill the man, but Hurt clearly thinks that's ridiculous. On this reading, even the song's narrator is glad to see the back of him. Only the white singers, it's claimed, are prepared to join in the rejoicing at a black man's death. McCulloch and Hendrix raise this point in their graphic novel, only to dismiss it almost instantly 8. My own view is that the choice of pronoun depends less on the singer's race than on where he's decided to place himself in the song.

It's also worth noting that the record of white singers' and black singers' pronoun use is far more jumbled than the racism theory suggests. Shelton's casual attitude after the murder - he walked a few blocks to a house everyone knew he used and went upstairs to get some sleep - suggests he wasn't too worried about police pursuit.

Stagger Lee Fisher

He may have assumed, with some reason, that one black man killing another in that particular part of town would simply be ignored. If so, he reckoned without Henry Bridgewater. He was also a prominent Republican at a time when black Americans' initial loyalty to that party was starting to drop away. The Civil War had brought an end to slavery in , and this was achieved under the Republican President Abraham Lincoln. That was enough to ensure that most blacks voted Republican when first given the chance to do so in But, by , few of the Republicans' promises had materialised and disillusionment was setting in.

One of these clubs, headed by Shelton, is said to have met at Curtis' Saloon. Just a few blocks up the street, Bridgewater was hosting Republican meetings at his own bar. Bridgewater's Saloon was a much more upmarket affair than Curtis', often entertaining the black celebrities of the day, and able to attract a wealthier clientele.

The picture at Curtis' and Bridgewater's alike seems to be one of wild debauchery progressing on the ground floor while sober political meetings were conducted in an upstairs room.


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It's a difficult juxtaposition for us to understand. How did pimps and saloon keepers at the worst joints in town end up playing such a pivotal part n the political process? Saloon keepers were ideally placed to fill this role because they provided accommodation for the itinerant workers passing through town.

Even though these workers had no interest in St Louis politics, they were given a vote in city elections. The saloon keeper had only to offer them a few free drinks at the bar for those votes to be cast any way he liked. Membership of the clubs and the sporting clubs where Shelton pimped his girls often over-lapped, allowing him to extend his influence over both. The police knew Lyons as a 'rowdy bully' who had once threatened drinkers at Curtis' Saloon. Take all these facts together, and it starts to look like Bridgewater might have dispatched Lyons to Curtis' Saloon that night to broker some kind of deal between Deep Morgan's Republican and Democrat factions.

That would explain why eyewitnesses thought Lyons and Shelton spoke in such a friendly way at first, and also why things turned ugly when they started discussing politics. Bridgewater was married to Eliza Lyons, Billy's sister, and may have decided that only a member of the family could be entrusted with such a delicate task.

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When the police arrested Shelton on Boxing Day they took him to Chestnut Street police station and held him there. Next day, he was taken to the coroner's office on Eleventh Street for Lyons' inquest. Even when the police summoned reinforcements and drew their weapons, the crowd refused to disperse. One un-named informant at the inquest told coroner WJ Wait that Lyons had been shot as part of a vendetta which began five years earlier.

He pointed out that Lyons' step-brother, Charles Brown, had killed a man called Harry Wilson in Bridgewater's Saloon back in , but never been convicted of the crime. Shelton, he claimed, had sworn to avenge Wilson's killing, and that was why he shot Lyons. There's no other evidence to support the revenge theory, however, and Wait refused to take it seriously.

Bridgewater's men remained in place when the inquest was over, agreeing to go home only after Wait had assured them Shelton would be held in custody pending charges of first-degree murder. He was taken first to a holding cell, and then to jail. Judge David Murphy signed a warrant for first-degree murder against him on January 3, , and bound him over to await trial.

Bridgewater's role did not stop at dispatching his men to the coroner's office. John David, author of 's Tragedy in Ragtime , has uncovered a sheriff's letter to Judge James Withrow saying Bridgewater had pushed for Shelton to be prosecuted. He also hired Orrick Bishop, the city's formidable Assistant Circuit Attorney, to prosecute the case. Without Bridgewater's influence - and money - it's also unlikely doctors at the city hospital would have gone to so much trouble to try and save Lyons' life.

When those efforts proved fruitless, he ensured Lyons was buried in the Bridgewater family plot. But Lyons was not the only one with money and power behind him. Only a day after he was arrested, Shelton had already recruited a top-flight lawyer of his own. Nat Dryden was a brilliant Missouri lawyer, who had secured the state's first-ever conviction of a white man for killing a black man.

He was also an alcoholic and an opium addict but these habits did nothing to inhibit his courtroom performance. Dryden was a fierce cross-examiner and a powerful orator.

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He'd proved himself capable of winning even the most unpromising murder cases, and he would not have come cheap. Either Shelton was a wealthier man than his lifestyle suggests, or he had rich friends. With Bishop in one corner and Dryden in the other, Shelton's trial was shaping up as a fascinating proxy fight between St Louis' leading politicians.


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  • Shelton's trial was shaping up as a proxy fight between two of the city's leading politicians. It's this same Globe-Democrat piece, incidentally, which seems to have introduced the idea that Shelton and Lyons were gambling with dice when the fight broke out. In fact, there's no mention of gambling in either the earlier newspaper reports or the inquest statements. Either the reporter responsible was genuinely confused, or he could not resist embellishing the story with one extra little colourful detail.

    Whatever its beginnings, the gambling is now an immovable part of the song. In many versions, it's Billy's alleged cheating at craps that prompts Stag to shoot him. Shelton's trial began on July 15, , and lasted just three days. Dryden accepted that his client had shot Lyons, but argued it was done in self-defence. On July 18, after 22 hours' deliberation, the jury returned with a split verdict. Seven of them voted for second-degree murder, two for manslaughter and three for acquittal. Judge Harvey dismissed them and ordered a retrial. Shelton returned to his old life. Dryden died after a drinking spree on August 26, , while Shelton was still waiting for a retrial.

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