A Bad Man By Any Name
Stagger Lee's Fascinating Journey Into Myth
Published Sep 01, 2006
That he was a bad, bad man, no one disputes — not Woody Guthrie, not Fats Domino, nor Ike and Tina Turner, Dr. John or Neil Diamond. They can’t agree on much else, not even his name: Stagger Lee, Stackolee, Stag O’Lee, Stack-A-Lee. He shot Billy Lyons (or Billy shot him) over a hat (or a girl, or dice) — that much seems certain.
These threads of myth and mystery are unravelled in Stagger Lee (Image Comics), a graphic novel by Derek McCulloch, drawn by Shepherd Hendrix, that fleshes out the circumstances of Christmas Eve 1895, when Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons in a St. Louis saloon after arguing over a Stetson hat. But what unfolds is far more interesting than cold historical data — it’s the legacy of Stag Lee, and how it evolved into hundreds of different songs that McCulloch explores in his fictional reconstruction of true events.
McCulloch first learned of Stagger Lee in music scholar Greil Marcus’s book Mystery Train. An immersion in both academic dissertations and recorded works followed, and McCulloch found more than two hours worth of "Stagger Lee” interpretations, which form the spine of the graphic novel’s narrative. "Every word of this book was written with some version of ‘Stagger Lee’ playing in the background,” McCulloch says.
But unravelling the knots that bind "Stack-A-Lee” with "Stagolee” is just one thread of the book. What emerges is a fictionalised, fascinating narrative of Lee Shelton’s environment — his morphine addicted, superstar lawyer, the influence of Billy Lyons’ politically connected family and the loyalty of various "witnesses” all play a part in what is inevitably speculative, since no transcripts of Lee Shelton’s trial and conviction survive. It’s a tricky balancing act for the authors, one that required elaborate charts and outlines — and a little outside help.
"I told [my wife] what I had in mind for various important plot threads,” McCulloch relates, "and she said, ‘There aren’t really any women in it, are there?’ At that stage, there weren’t. I knew I wanted to tell the story of the murder and of the political events surrounding it. I knew I wanted to invent a character, a piano player, who would be the composer of an early version of the song. It hadn’t occurred to me how thoroughly male the story was. I thought of a line that occurs in the [version] Nick Cave unearthed: ‘There’s something I have to say before you begin/You’ll have to be gone before my man Billy Dilly comes in.’ Similar lines occur in other versions. I started to imagine a scenario that would account for [that] element entering the ‘Stagger Lee’ canon, and suddenly realised that I had not only my female lead but the thread that finally tied the whole book together.”
Derek McCulloch was born in Ottawa and raised in Grande Prairie, Alberta before ending up in California. After founding the Strawberry Jam Comics imprint, he co-founded the Comic Legends Legal Defence Fund (a Canadian counterpart to the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund), and edited two True North fundraising anthologies for the CLLDF. An early version of Stagger Lee, drawn by Rik Livingston, called "Stagger Lee On American Bandstand,” was published in the Expo 2001 anthology. "In tone, it’s similar to the ‘Stagger Lee 101’ pages (as we called them) that run through the finished book,” McCulloch says. "It was intended as a teaser to give a general idea when we tried to sell the book to a publisher.”
When Rik Livingston expressed some trepidation at fitting a 200-plus-page book into his schedule, McCulloch found Shepherd Hendrix. "I was just telling him about it at a party and he got completely caught up by the concept.”
"Derek did most of the research,” Hendrix relates. "His script was laced with hyperlinks to web pages featuring images of the non-fictional characters and places in the story. My research focused on everyday objects of the time to lend some authenticity to the illustrations: architecture, buildings, household items, clothing and furniture.”
The primary source of Stagger Lee’s richness is its interplay between fact, fiction and music. "With the right attention to juxtaposition, the ‘101’ pages and the narrative pages comment on one another,” McCulloch says. "The ‘101’ pages that show ’Bama singing ‘Stagolee’ at Parchman Farm [prison] immediately precede the scene where Lee, for the first time, hears a convict singing the song. Or the scene where Lee has his nightmare about Billy is followed by the Frank Hutchison version, which ends with Stackalee haunted by Billy in his cell. I was fascinated by the fact that Lee Shelton lived long enough to see his own story get turned into a myth.”
Stagger Lee Lives On
Of course, Derek McCulloch has his favourite Stagger Lees: "From a musical standpoint, nobody will ever top Sidney Bechet’s instrumental version. From a storytelling standpoint, the very comprehensive (but hard to find) proto-rock’n’roll version by Archibald. No contest for most ridiculous: Neil Diamond’s late ’70s/early ’80s cover of the Lloyd Price version. Weirdest conceptually is Bob Brozman’s ‘Stack O Lee Aloha,’ an instrumental with ukulele as the lead instrument.”
Here are five more you can find:
Bob Dylan "Stackalee”: Having begun as a Harry Smith-obsessed folkie, Dylan returned to these roots with a couple of albums in the early ‘90s; his heartily traditional take features his signature harmonica and raspy honk. Found on: World Gone Wrong (Columbia, 1993)
The Clash "Wrong ‘Em Boyo”: Mick Jones and Joe Strummer take songwriting credit for their punkified, reggae-inflected version, but its DNA is pure Stag. Found on: London Calling (Epic, 1979)
Wilson Pickett "Stagger Lee”: Soul great Pickett pulls off a horn-inflected funk workout and makes it all his own. Found on: I’m In Love (Collectibles, 1968)
Nick Cave "Stagger Lee”: By far the darkest, most haunting version ever, this "bad motherfucker Stagger Lee” is stripped of the details and features some disturbing prison-rape imagery. Found on: Murder Ballads (Mute/Reprise, 1996)
Grateful Dead "Stagger Lee”: Trust these hippie stalwarts to noodle away for eight-and-a-half minutes and invoke none of the power blues masters can in one-third the time. Found on: Shakedown Street (Arista, 1978)