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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, September 7th, 2003


Stagolee Shot Billy


Bad boy in a Stetson

A review by Gerald Mangan

Late in the evening of December 25, 1895, a smartly dressed young mulatto pimp by the name of Lee Shelton entered a crowded bar in the red-light district of St Louis, Missouri. The atmosphere was rowdily festive, but his entrance was ostentatious enough to be noticed by several witnesses, who later testified that his first words were "Who's treating?" He joined the company of a burly fellow black named William Lyons, and an altercation soon developed, in which the two men knocked each other's hats off. Shelton bashed Lyons's high-roller derby out of shape, and Lyons responded by snatching his assailant's handsome white Stetson.

When he refused to surrender it, Shelton drew a revolver and shot him in the chest. Lyons died during the night, and Shelton was very soon arrested for the murder.

The incident would have languished in the obscurity of local police files if it had not become the subject of a song, "Stagolee," one of the earliest and most intriguing of blues ballads, which turned the crime into a peculiarly enduring legend. It was already a fixture of the folk-song canon when W. H. Auden included a lengthy version in the Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938), but little was known of its origins. Cecil Brown seems to be the first to have discovered its source in the man nicknamed "Stag" or "Stacker" Lee Shelton, and unearthed all the available information about him. Stagolee Shot Billy provides a fascinating biography of the song, from its shadowy birth in the ragtime era to its afterlife in the age of hip-hop — an evolution, by way of innumerable variants and alternative readings, that shows how vividly a single item of oral culture can reflect changing times.

One of the first and best-known recordings of the song was made in 1928 by the illustrious Mississippi John Hurt, a version which Brown calls "a classic example". Its six laconic stanzas present Stagolee as a mysteriously ruthless killer who shoots a defenceless father of two for a trivial motive, after mocking his pleas for mercy:

"What do I care about your two little babes,
Your darlin' lovin' wife?
You done stole my stetson hat,
And I'm bound to take your life."
He was a bad man, O cruel Stagolee.

Boom-boom, boom-boom,
Went that forty-four.
When I spied poor Billy Lyons,
He was lying down on the floor.
That bad man, O cruel Stagolee.

The tone of the tragedy is lightened by Hurt's casually rueful delivery, as well as by his sprightly guitar-picking; but he leaves us in no doubt that the narrator's sympathies lie with "poor" Lyons. We hear it as a lament for the victim of the bullet, like Hurt's own haunting composition "Louis Collins", and the murderer is granted only one note of grudging admiration, for his gallows bravado. ("Standing on the gallows / Head way up high, / At twelve o'clock they killed him / They was all glad to see him die"). Hurt's version seems to have been the basis for the only other versions I've known, by Woody Guthrie and Taj Majal. I've always seen it as a wayward descendant of the long Scots-Irish tradition of outlaw/murder ballads, that stretches back beyond Robert Burns's version of "MacPherson's Farewell" ("They put the clock a quarter afore / And hanged him frae the tree"). Blues singers absorbed more of that background than we usually imagine, mostly through "hillbilly" translations; but "Stagolee" has often struck me as exceptional, in the sense that its hero seems to be such a deep-dyed villain, with so few of the justified-rebel or Robin Hood qualities that redeem MacPherson, Jesse James, or Billy the Kid. In that respect his closest ancestor would perhaps be the vengeful stonemason in "Lamkin," who slaughters the whole household of Lord Weary's castle when his bill remains unpaid.

The greatest surprise in Brown's account, therefore, is the revelation that Stagolee has served from the outset as an icon of dignity, courage and virility — "a powerful archetype, a 'bad nigger' culture hero." Brown recalls admiring him as a child, who felt only contempt for the grovelling Lyons; and he produces a wealth of evidence to show that black listeners have generally understood Stagolee's violence as a response to racial oppression. A long so-called toast version was adopted as a recruiting song by the Black Panther movement, whose leader Bobby Seale regarded Stagolee, in James Baldwin's phrase, as "a model for achieving manhood." The tradition has been kept alive by gangsta-rap performers, who portray him as a modern urban guerrilla. From this point of view, "bad" has the more approving colloquial sense of feisty, wilful and dangerous.

The logic in this would be clearer if the victim had been white, of course. Some versions of "Stagolee" accuse the police of trailing their feet, precisely because he was not white. Others call him "Bully" Lyons, as if to extenuate the crime. But Billy's colour and character seem to be largely beside the point, where the main purpose is to extol the killer's virtues — his cunning in resisting arrest, his insolence towards his judges, and most of all his touchy pride in defending his hard-won property and status, symbolized by the flamboyant cowhide Stetson. Stagolee has apparently sold his soul to the devil for the hat, which confers magic powers such as fire-eating and shape-changing. The loss of it is equivalent to Samson's haircut, but he is still able to defy the Devil himself, after he is hanged and delivered to Hell. ("Let's us have some fun," he says, in the version collected by Auden. "You stick me with your pitchfork, / And I'll shoot you with my forty-one.") This Satanic motif, which makes Stagolee into a sort of African-American Faust, reveals him most clearly as a wish-fulfilling fantasy — a figure above morality as well as the law.

Brown gives us an unusually rich analysis of the legend's growth. He has uncovered a complex of plausible motives for the killing, including political and business rivalries and a family vendetta; and he vividly reconstructs its social context, amid riverboats and bordellos. But he admits that the real events are less important than the folk mythology nurtured by singers and listeners, who have shared a need for this kind of dramatic hero, and constantly reinvented him for their own purposes. As a freedom fighter crowned with martyrdom, his antecedents in Irish folk song would have been worth evoking ("Kevin Barry,""The Croppy Boy," and so on). Brown attempts instead, in the woolliest of his theoretical chapters, to equip Stagolee with an incongruous ancestry in the "outsider" tradition of the Baudelairean flaneur; and he stretches the song-text evidence too often in his hero's favour, without fully addressing the ethical issues. (It needs an active imagination to believe that Hurt's performance "mirrors Stagolee's pain and resentment.") This is clearly due to historical anger and Cecil Brown's own affection for the character, both very much in keeping with the song's tradition.

But it frequently makes him sound like the smart lawyer who entered a plea of self-defence for Shelton, arguing that Lyons had provoked him with a knife. ("You cock-eyed son of a bitch", he'd been heard to say, with reference to Shelton's pronounced squint, "I'll make you kill me".) This defence succeeded, as it turns out, and so the "real" Stagolee was not hanged after all. He served less than half of a twenty-five-year sentence and died of tuberculosis in 1912, after being reimprisoned for a later assault. By that time, he must have heard at least one version of the song that celebrated his execution.

Gerald Mangan is a poet and illustrator. His collection of poems, "Waiting for the Storm", was published in 1990.

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