Stagger Lee

From Kim Beissel:

Nick borrowed this book from Jim Sclavunos, did a quick edit on the words and they recorded it very quickly. This text is THE version. The other well known blues versions as already quoted in the Cave Inn bear very little resemblance to NCs version.:

(The line which Nick added about "I'd crawl over 50 good pussies...." was lifted from an X-rated blues song called "Two Time Slim" by Snatch & The Poontangs. There is very little info on this track. It dates from around 1969, and is available on a German compilation on the Zuzazz label called "If It Ain't a Hit I'll Eat My ...Baby")

"The Life, The Lore, and Folk Poetry of the Black Hustler"
by Dennis Wepman, Ronald B. Newman, Murray B. Binderman
Holloway House, Los Angeles 1986
ISBN 0-87067-367-X

Stagger Lee - Big Stick
(Trad. c. 1895)
Transcribed in Auburn Prison, New York, 1967

"The toasts in this collection were taken down in shorthand from spontaneous recitations during the 1950's and 60's by one of us, at that time an inmate in the prisons of New York - Sing Sing, Clinton, Attica, and Auburn."

"The proto-toast "Stagger Lee" has been widely printed and discussed since a version of it appeared in "The Journal Of American Folklore" in 1911. The ballad is apparently based on the killing of one Billy Lyon by an already notorious badman named Lee. The fight or murder is variously explained, but it usually has something to do with Billy's stealing, winning, or spitting on Stag's milk-white Stetson Hat. In the toast which has evolved from this bully-ballad, the cause of the shooting is usually reduced to the victim's opposition to Stag. In this version Stag's motives for killing Billy seems to be sheer meanness. In all versions, Stag is the victor, and sometimes he triumphs even after his execution for the murder - by bullying the devil into relinquishing the rule of Hell to him. The version presented here has no such grand dimension"

"This version came from Big Stick, a black hustler from upstate New York, in Auburn [prison] in 1967. Stick was about twenty and said he had known it for years."

Stagger Lee

Back in '32 when times were hard,
He had a Colt .45 and a deck of cards,
Rat-drawn shoes, an old Stetson hat,
A '28 Ford and payments on that.

His woman threw him out in the ice and snow,
And told him not to come back there no more.

He hadn't copped for a long, long time,
And he had to play with Jojo 'cause he didn't have a dime.

He walked through rain and he walked through mud,
Till he came to a place called the Bucket of Blood.

He said, "Mr. Motherfucker, you must know who I am."
Barkeep said, "No, and I don't give a good goddamn."

He said, "Well, bartender, it's plain to see,
I'm that bad motherfucker named Stagger Lee."

Barkeep said, "Yeah, I heard your name down the way,
But I kick motherfucking asses like you every day."

Well, those were the last words the barkeep said,
'Cause Stag put four holes in his motherfucking head.

Just then in came a broad named Nellie Brown,
Known to have more coins than any bitch in town.

She came 'cross the bar, pulling up her skirt,
The way the bitch always started to flirt.

She dug the barkeep and said, "He can't be dead."
Stag said, "Well just count them holes in the motherfucker's head."

She said, "You look like you ain't copped in quite a time.
Why not come to my pad. It won't cost you a dime."

"But there's something I'll have to say before you begin.
You'll have to be gone when Billy Dilly comes in."

"I'll stay there till Billy Dilly comes in, till time comes to pass. And furthermore I'll fuck Billy Dilly in his motherfucking ass."

Well they started to fuck, and she started to fart.
He said, "What's wrong, bitch?" She said, "Coming, sweetheart."

Just then Billy Dilly rolled in and said, "You must be
That bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee."

"Yeah I'm Stagger Lee, and you'd better get down on your knees and slobber my head,
'Cause if you don't you're sure to be dead."

Billy dropped down and slobbered on his head,
But Stag filled him full of lead.


Bitch: Woman (not always pejorative)
Broad: Woman
Colt .45: Type of pistol
Cop: Obtain something illegally: sex, drugs, etc.
Dime: Ten cents
Fuck: Have sexual relations
Head: Glans of the penis
Jojo: Personification of the penis
Motherfucker: Person (not always pejorative)
Pad: Residence
Rat-drawn shoes: Pointed shoes


Subj:Stagger Lee: NC interview & list
Date:Thu, Jan 11, 1996
From:Nick White

Here's Nick Cave on his version of Stagger Lee, plus a long list of people who've done versions of the song.

Both are taken from surely the definitive (?) article on the subject that I mentioned from the January issue of Mojo magazine (the magazine usually for aging Pink Floyd fans).

Nick's lyrics are available, as well as three traditional verisons.

The Young Gun

This January, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' new album "Murder Ballads" includes the latest version of Stagger Lee. It's not for the squeamish...

"Stagger Lee was basically an afterthought for The Bad Seeds: we had basically recorded the Murder Ballads record and I was sitting in the studio, reading a book that Jim Sclavunos [the percussion in the Bad Seeds] had found about the folk poetry of black hustlers, and I came across this version.

The band were all there so we went in and improvised the song. Martyn [P. Casey] started up a groovy bassline, the band came in, I started singing and that was that. We went into the studio and, 15 minutes later, came out with a song written and recorded.

I hear people talk about art as being man-made, that it's about craftsmanship. I think that's bullshit. The gods gave us this song and they were pissing themselves with laughter when they did it.

In the versions I have heard, there are various reasons why Stag kills Billy Lyons. It usually has something to do with Billy stealing, winning or spilling something on Stag's milk-white Stetson hat. I've heard a version where the hat is red- ox blood, actually, "the colour of cancer", that's what the song actually says.

My version, which I found in a book on Negro American toasts, was discovered, apparently, by a black hustler from New York called Big Stick.

What I like about it is that Stagger Lee's atrocious behaviour has nothing to do with anything but flat-out meanness, nothing but Bad Motherfuckerishness. The final act of brutality, where the great Stagger Lee blows the head off Billy Dilly- as he's known in this version- while he's committing fallatio is especially attractive.

There's a verse to our version of Stagger Lee that goes "I'm the kind of cocksucker that would crawl over 50 good pussies to get to one fat boy's asshole", which I heard on an amazing talking blues song by a guy who, in the song, introduces himself as Two-time Slim. I've always thought that was a groovy line so I just threw it in for good measure.

Stagger Lee appeals to me simply because so many people have recorded it. The reason why we did it, apart from finding a pretty good version of it in this book, was that there is already a tradition. We're kinda adding to that.

I like the way the simple, almost naive traditional murder ballad has gradually become a vehicle that can happily accommodate the most twisted acts of deranged machismo.

Just like Stagger Lee himself, there seems to be no limits to how evil this song can become."


Stagger Lee has a century-long charge sheet, including...

TitlePerformerYear of
Stagger LeeWaring's Pennsylvanians1923
Stagger LeeFrank Westphal &
His Regal Novelty Orchestra
Stagger LeeHerb Wiedoeft's
Cinderella Roof Orchestra
Stack O'Lee BluesMa Rainey &
Her Georgia Band
Stagger LeeEvelyn Thompson1927
Stagger LeeJack Linx &
His Society Serenaders
StackaleeFrank Hutchison1927
Stack O'Lee Blues
Long Cleve Reed &
The Down Home Boys
Stack O'Lee BluesDuke Ellington &
The Washingtonians
Stack O'LeeCliff Edwards1928
Stagger LeeBoyd Senter &
His Senterpedes
Stack O'Lee BluesMississippi John Hurt1929
Billy Lyons And
Stack O'Lee
Furry Lewis1929
Stagger LeeCab Calloway &
His Orchestra
Stagger LeeWoody Guthrie1931
Stack O'Lee Blues
1 and 2
Carson robison &
His Pioneers
StackerleeFoy Gant, Austin, Texas1934*
StagoleeAlbert Jackson,
State Farm, Atmore, Alabama
StagoleeBlind Pete and Partner,
Little Rock, Arkansas
StagoleeJohn (Big Nig) Bray,
Amelia, Louisiana
StagoleeGroup Of Women Prisoners,
State Farm, Raiford, Florida
StagoleeLonnie Robertson, State pen.,
Parchman, Mississippi
StagoleeBert Martin,
Manchester, Kentucky
StagoleeBlind Jesse Harris,
Livingston, Alabama
Stack O'Lee BluesJohnny Dodds &
His Chicago Boys
StagoleeLuscious Curtis &
Willie Ford,
Natchez, Mississippi
StaggerleeMemphis Slim,
Big Bill Broonzy &
Sonny Boy Williamson
Staggerlee BamaA Convict1947*, incl. on
Murderer's Home
Pts 1 and 2
Stack-o-LeeTennessee Ernie Ford1951
Stagger LeeLloyd Price1958
Stack-o-Lee BluesKen Colyer1958
StaggerleeSung by Hogman Maxey,
1959*, incl. on
Angola Prisoner's
Stagger LeeJerry Lee Lewis1959
StaggerleeThe Isley Brothers1963
Stack O'LeeTom Rush1965
Stagger Lee
and Billy
Ike & Tina Turner1965
Stack O'LeePrince Buster &
His Trojans
Stagger LeeJames Brown1967
Stagger LeeWilson pickett1967
Stagger LeeTim Hardin1967
StaggerleeTaj Mahal1969
Stagger LeePJ Proby1969
Stagger LeeDION1969
Stagger LeeMike Bloomfield1969
StaggerleeWilbert Harrison1970
Stagger LeeTommy Roe1971
Pts 1 and 2
Dr. John1972
Stagger LeeProfessor Longhair1975
Stagolee Was
A Bully
Uncle John Patterson1978
Stagger LeeThe Grateful Dead1978
Stagger Lee/
Wrong 'Em Boyo
The Clash1979
Stagger LeeNeil Diamond1980
StaggerleeSOuthside Johnny &
The Asbury Dukes
StaggerleeNeil Sedaka1984
Stagger LeeDoug Sahm1984
Stack O'Lee BluesDead brain cells1987
Stack A LeeBob Dylan1993
Stagger LeeNick Cave &
The Bad Seeds

(*) Denotes field recording.
List compiled by James Maycock.

Hope that's of use to the Stagger Lee-spotters among us.

Nick White

There was a young man called Nick Cave
Who was prone to be labelled depraved
He'd revel in sin
But then he let love in
And now he's a good son, well-behaved.


From The Annotated Greatful Dead Lyrics

Stagger Lee

There are a number of tunes entitled "Stagger Lee" which have been recorded over the years. They all derive from a series of tales and songs in African- American folklore.

One serious attempt to ascertain the possible historical existence of Stacker Lee was made, in an article by Richard E. Buehler, "Stacker Lee: a Partial Investigation into the Historicity of a Negro Murder Ballad," published in the Keystone Folklore Quarterly in the Fall, 1967 issue (pp. 187-191.) Buehler identifies a Stacker Lee who was a Confederate officer and subsequently an upstanding member of the community, and who is unlikely to have been the model for the badman of legend. And while Buehler suggests several lines for further research, no one seems to have taken up the task--notably the possibility that the key to the historicity of the ballad may lie in the name "Billy Lyons," rather than in Stacker Lee. This historical Stacker Lee unearthed by Buehler was the member of the Lee family of steamboat owners, and he points out that

"Many of the Lee Line boats were named for members of the Lee family, and one of them was the Stacker Lee (hence the name of Miss Ferber's showboat [immortalized in her book, Show Boat]). This boat was commissioned in 1906 and went down in 1916." (p. 188)
Blair Jackson, in his magazine "Golden Road" said this about "Stagger Lee":
""Stagger Lee," who pops on the Shakedown album is a fabled character who some suggest dates back to the Civil War. Variously called "Stag-O-Lee," "Stack-O-Lee," and other names, the song is about a scoundrel who killed Billy Lyons because he stole Stag's Stetson hat. Stag-O-Lee was upset about the death, though--because he failed to shoot Billy right between the eyes. Songwriters over the years have elaborated on the story, bringing in the bad man's deals with the devil, etc. It's been recorded often, by everyone from Mississippi John Hurt (his 1928 version is one of the first on record) to Professor Longhair and Doc and Merle Watson."

Stetson Hat

The archetypal western hat. Patrick Bousquet's article, "The Hat of the West: John B. and his Stetson," tells the history of the hat, and of its creator, John B. Stetson. Stetson was born in 1830 to a "master hatmaker, Stephen Stetson, of Orange, New Jersey." He invented what is now thought of as the classic Stetson about 1850, "...a large hat with a broad brim for protection from the sun and rain, and it had a high crown." (p. 19) When he went into production with this hat, he christened it "Boss of the Plains."

B. A. Botkin in "A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of the People" has this story:

"The Magic Hat

You see, it happened like this: Stack was crazy about Stetson hats; specially them great big five gallon hats with dimples in the crown. And he had a whole row of 'em hangin' on pegs and you could look at 'em along the wall of his rickety shanty on Market Street in St. Louis, where he lived with his woman, Stack o' Dollars, that I'm goin to tell you about later.

He had a dimpled and lemon colored yaller hat, and a black Sunday one with two white eyes to wear to funerals with his new brogans, and lots of other ones, all kinds and colors.

But his favorite one was an oxblood magic hat that folks claim he made from the raw hide of a man-eatin panther that the devil had skinned alive. And like I told you, how come Stack to have it was because he had sold his soul to old Scratch. You see, Satan heard about Stack's weakness, so he met him that dark night and took him into the grave yahd where he coaxed him into tradin' his soul, promisin' him he could do all kinds of magic and devilish things long as he wore that oxblood Stetson and didn't let it get away from him. And that's the way the devil fixed it so when Stack did lose it he would lose his head, and kill a good citizen, and run right smack into his doom." (p. 123)


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