A story appearing in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1895 read:
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.
Lyons eventually died of his injuries. Shelton was tried, convicted, and served prison time for this crime. This otherwise unmemorable crime is remembered in a song.
The version recorded by Mississippi John Hurt in 1928 is considered by some commentators to be definitive, containing as it does all of the elements that appear in other versions.
A cover with different lyrics was a chart hit for Lloyd Price in 1959; Dick Clark felt that the original tale of murder was too morbid for his American Bandstand audience, and insisted that they be changed to eliminate the murder. In this version, the subject was changed from gambling to fighting over a woman, and instead of a murder, the two yelled at each other, and made up the next day. However, it was the original, unbowdlerized, version of Lloyd Price’s performance that reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and was ranked #456 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
But “Stag O Lee” songs may have predated even the 1895 incident, and Lee Sheldon may have gotten his nickname from earlier folk songs. The first published version of the song was by folklorist John Lomax in 1910 by which time the song was well-known in African-American communities along the lower Mississippi River.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, by contrast, present an even more violent and an homoerotic version of the tale on the 1996 LP Murder Ballads. It also appears to be set in the 1830s…..
mp3 : Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Stagger Lee
Over the years, this has become a live favourite on just about every Bad Seeds tour, with subtle little changes making the performance just a little bit different each time. One of the most stunning versions came on the Abattoir Blues tour, where the band were augmented by backing singers from a gospel choir and the results were truly breathtaking:-
mp3 : Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Stagger Lee (live)
Nearly nine minutes long. And not a single second was wasted.
See you all in hell.