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A Christmas Killing: Stagger Lee



In the evening of Christmas 1895, two friends got into an arguments at a saloon in St. Louis. It ended when Lee Sheldon shot and killed William Lyons. It was reported in a newspaper that Lyon had taken Sheldon's hat and would not give it back. Alcohol was involved.  

There were four other murders that Christmas night in St Louis, but this was the one that counted. Work songs, field chants and folktales describing how Lee 'Stack Lee' Shelton killed Billy Lyons started to spring up almost immediately. The earliest written lyrics we have date back to 1903, and the first discs to 1923. There have been well over 200 versions of Stack's story released on record since then, giving him a list of biographers which includes some of the biggest names in popular music. Duke Ellington, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and James Brown have all recorded the song at one time or another, as have Wilson Pickett, The Clash, Bob Dylan, Dr John and Nick Cave. Even Elvis Presley had a stab at it in a 1970 rehearsal session which later surfaced as a bootleg CD.

The new century's seen other media join in too. In 2006, Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix published a fat graphic novel telling Stagger Lee's story in careful detail. Movie versions have come from Samuel L Jackson, who gives a storming live rendition of the song in 2007's Black Snake Moan, and Eric Bibb, who uses it to comment on the action unfolding around his character in the following year's Honeydripper.

Songs about Stagger Lee varied widely in their details over the past century, so what was the real story? Paul Slade did a deep dive into the story of Lee Sheldon, first setting the stage in late 19th-century St. Louis and then following what is known of the crime and what  might be inferred. He also looks into the evolution of the song-story and what different versions meant for their time. -via Strange Company 


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