Santi Elijah Holley on the history of murder ballads
In a saloon in St. Louis, Missouri, an African American man named Billy Lyons was shot dead by an African American man named Lee Shelton, also known as “Stagger Lee,” following a dispute over a Stetson hat. This murder was otherwise unremarkable—it was one of five murders in St. Louis on that Christmas night in 1895—but the cold-bloodedness of Shelton’s killing and the callousness with he walked away from Lyon’s prone body quickly spread by word-of-mouth, with each successive narrator creating new details and exaggerating Shelton’s brutality. Singers and musicians condemned him as a villain, prisoners and street hustlers celebrated him as a hero. By the start of the 20th century, the legend of Stagger Lee was born.
In my book for the 33 1/3 series, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads, I examine the true history of Stagger Lee, as well as the origins of many other traditional murder ballads that influenced the band’s 1996 album. Ballads have existed for centuries, originating in England and Ireland, and making their way, via migration, to the American South and Appalachia in the late-19th century. Though they typically recount a true event, using real names and places, few ballads bother with accuracy. Because early ballads were composed anonymously and passed on orally, with the singer adding his or her own embellishments, you would rarely hear a ballad the same way twice. Murder ballads served multiple purposes: as cautionary tales, news dissemination, or lurid entertainment. Tom Waits describes ballads as “just a cut above graffiti…the oral tabloids of the day.” As they were sung predominately by poor and disenfranchised communities, murder ballads helped to keep stories alive that would have been otherwise forgotten to history—and, in turn, they shaped contemporary music, film, and literature.
Numerous singers and musical groups have put their own spin on the Stagger Lee story, including Ma Rainey, Woody Guthrie, Wilson Pickett, Taj Mahal, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, The Clash, and The Black Keys. Though he wasn’t the first to record this song, Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 rendition, “Stack O’ Lee,” has become one of the most widely known and emulated arrangements, with its rhymed couplet, followed by the repeated refrain: “That bad man, cruel Stack O’ Lee.” Born in Mississippi in 1893, Hurt was a sharecropper and self-taught guitar player, who played in the Piedmont, fingerpicking style. He cut his first records in 1928 for the Okeh label, but after years of obscurity following the Great Depression, Hurt was “rediscovered” in 1963 by white blues aficionados, and his later records and performances influenced the American folk music revival of the 1960s.
In addition to “Stack O’ Lee,” Hurt recorded two other murder ballads in 1928, including “Louis Collins,” and “Frankie”—one of the rare murder ballads about a woman murdering a man, in this case the two-timing, no-account Albert. With “Stack O’ Lee,” Hurt strips the song to its most basic details, narrating the story in the first-person, as though he was present during these events. He begins by asking some anonymous police officer why he’d arrested everybody but the killer, but in the next verse Hurt jumps backward in time to the scene of the murder. “Billy de Lyon” pleads with Stack O’ Lee not to kill him, on behalf of his “two little babies” and his “darlin’ lovin’ wife.” (Hurt was close; the real William Lyons was father to three children.) Stack O’ Lee is unmoved and shoots Billy dead, because Lyons dared to steal Lee’s Stetson hat.
In the final verse, an expectant crowd has gathered around Stack O’ Lee, presumably to watch him hang for his deed. The fate of the real-life Lee Shelton, however, is much more complicated and much less conclusive, as you’ll see in my book. But regardless of its historical veracity, this version by Mississippi John Hurt remains one of my favorites, and it has done more than any other in ensuring that Stagger Lee’s legend will live forever in infamy.
Caught up in the seedy allure of murder ballads? Check out Santi’s new book to learn more!