Stagger Lee: How violent nostalgia created an American folk song standard

  • Duncan A.H. Williams University of York
Keywords: Violence, oral tradition, film, storytelling


“Stagger” Lee Shelton (1865-1912) was an African-American carriage driver and sometime-pimp from Missouri. He became immortalized in song as a folklore antihero after murdering a drinking partner following a political argument gone bad in a St Louis saloon on Christmas day, 1895. Sentenced to 25 years in prison, Shelton died in Missouri State Penitentiary after violating his parole with a subsequent conviction for assault and robbery. The song, Stack-a-Lee was first documented in 1897, becoming well known in African American communities along the lower Mississippi River over the following decade as Stagolee, Stagger Lee, Stack OLee and other variants. Two versions were published in the Journal of American Folklore in 1911, with notable recordings entering the charts in the 1920s and beyond. Stagger Lee embodies the archetype of a violent and dangerous antihero as his story is retold, and reimagined or referenced in film, becoming a potent symbol of racial conflict in the United States.In both music and cinematic reincarnations, Stagger Lee seems to have an enduring popularity, partly due to the changing nature of his story, which ensures his tale remains up-to-date (it was most recently adapted to a musical in 2015). This article considers how and why this paean to violence, with its fetishistic vision of extreme masculinity, has become something of a standard in the American folk canon.