Lovers of American popular music are generally familiar with the song “Stagger Lee.” Lloyd Price had a hit version of the song in the late 1950’s, and Elvis Presley followed with one of his own. In his book Mystery Train, exploring the roots and imagery of rock music, Greil Marcus provides a condensed history of the song — “a story that black America never tired of hearing” — that suggests its influence and its richness.
Stagger Lee is a protean character existing in versions of the song going back to the ninetenth century as Stacklee, Stack-a-Lee, Stacker Lee, Stagolee, or Stackerlee, although the story and characters remained essentially the same: Stagger Lee killed a similarly protean character named Billy, ususally over a trivial slight.
The Ideas section of today’s Boston Globe has a terrific article on “Stagger Lee,” providing both an interesting account of the discovery of the man behind the myth and an excellent critique of the latest, politicized book on the subject. The Globe article is “The original gangsta.”
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