By the time Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were singing about Stagger Lee, there were sheriffs who were too cowardly to confront the criminal, executioners who set Stagger’s spirit free (with the help of a noose or an electric chair), dice games that had gone terribly awry, and heroic women who were left to pick up the pieces of Billy’s death. Each singer added something unique to the song, and they all understood what made the song special.
But then Lloyd Price came along and screwed it all up.
In 1928, Mississippi John Hurt recorded what is said to be the definitive version of “Stagger Lee,” the one on which nearly all subsequent versions are based. When Lloyd Price recorded the first rock and roll version of the song in 1959, he achieved something that Mississippi John Hurt never did: He sucked.
Price and his producers extinguished all of the fire in the song, added some horns and female back-up singers, and made it safe for the rock and roll masses of the 1950s. But even this watered-down swill was too controversial, and Price recorded yet another version, one where Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons talked out their problems. No guns, no blood, no killing…just Stagger and Billy, BFF.
Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee
If you know “Stagger Lee,” you probably know some variation on Price’s sucktastic version of the song. There’s a bulldog and a sickly wife and a bullet that “broke the bartender’s glass” (whatever that means). Pat Boone recorded it. Neil Diamond recorded it. Huey Lewis and the News recorded it. And you know what? Every single version blows.
Sure, they have hopping horn sections and soulful back-up singers and impassioned vocal deliveries, but none of those performers understand the song. Even Ike & Tina Turner and Wilson Pickett didn’t get it. Not a single one of them cared enough to dig into the fear and awe and respect and pain and admiration that exists in the best songs about Stagger Lee.
Fortunately for us, there’ve been a handful of people over the past few decades who did.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds‘ version from Murder Ballads was a big step in the right direction. Cave understood that he, like the singers from decades before, could take the story and make it his own. He got rid of the bulldog and the sickly wife and the bartender’s glass, and he added a whore and a lot of cursing and enough sadistic homoeroticism to make Dan Savage squirm. He lost the horns and the gospel singers, and he found a droning bassline and a frenzied outro.
Nick Cave’s Stagger Lee
Unfortunately, though, he tried too hard. His version is kind of like when U2 tried to steal “Helter Skelter” back from Charles Manson. It was a noble effort, but it failed. Cave got so wrapped up in being vulgar and shocking that he lost sight of the song’s heart. Compared to “Song of Joy” (the haunting opener on Murder Ballads), “Stagger Lee” is contrived and flawed.
Bassholes recorded the song in 1992 and, despite a recording that makes some of the earliest versions of the songs sound like Dark Side of the Moon in comparison, the energy is incredible. They understood the darkness in the song, but unlike Cave, they didn’t get mired in it. For lack of a better comparison, their “Stagger Lee” brings to mind what the Violent Femmes might do with the song.
With their refrain that “It’s wrong to cheat a trying man,” The Clash used Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons as a social warning in “Wrong ’em Boyo.” They tapped into a long history of moral messages in the song: Mississippi John Hurt sang of the community’s joy at watching Stagger Lee die, Cisco Houston‘s refrain of “When you lose your money, learn to lose” touched on personal responsibility and grace in the face of failure, and even Wilson Pickett subtly pointed out that Billy brought this mess on himself by gambling.
Foghorn Stringband‘s take is also worth mentioning, if only because it taps into the roots of “Stagger Lee.” The performance isn’t all that original when compared to recordings by artists like the New Lost City Ramblers, but the departure from the crap that epitomized the latter half of the 20th century shows a remarkable amount of taste and talent.
Grateful Dead’s Stagger Lee
There’s only one recent version of the song that can wrap up a look at the bad motherfucker known as Stagger Lee, and that’s the version by the bad motherfucker himself, Samuel L. Jackson. He performed the song in Black Snake Moan, and either he understands the music or he had some excellent advisors.
He goes deep into the song’s history and performs the song as a toast, a first-person account of how he’s the baddest man on the business end of a .44 caliber pistol. It may not be the best version of “Stagger Lee” to come out in the past few decades, but at least Jackson’s performance has heart.
And after nearly 50 years of bad performances, “Stagger Lee” needs nothing as much as it needs a heart.
- To find out which ones are good and which ones are lame, most of these versions and more can be freely streamed at Rhapsody
(And if you want to learn more about Stagger Lee, there’s a list of over 200 recorded versions online. Tons of things have been written about him, including Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown and a graphic novel called Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix. Alan Lomax repeatedly encountered stories and songs about Stagger Lee, and his book Folk Songs of North America isn’t a bad place to start. Or you can just Google his name and see what you find, because everything on the Internet — including this post — is 100% truthful and accurate.)