The thing that always struck me about Lloyd Price’s version of “Stagger Lee” — if you haven’t heard it lately, see Nicole’s almost frighteningly detailed history of the song — is that it’s downright jubilant: not only does Mr. Lee shoot Billy without discernible consequences, but the background singers are egging him on (“Go Stagger Lee!”) all the while. Furthermore, not only did Dick Clark refuse to allow it on the sanitary stage of American Bandstand, but for the next couple of decades, urban BMFs of this sort were expected to come to a Bad End. (See, for instance, the case of Leroy Brown.) Then again, the cleaned-up, Clark-approved version has been utterly ignored ever since; covers by everyone from Wilson Pickett to Tommy Roe have stuck to Price’s first telling of the story.
From Nicole’s notes:
The versions in which he takes over Hell from the devil also likely come from the perception that Lee was black and a black man strong enough to do all of that would have quickly become a folk hero to an oppressed minority population, who, although having been freed from slavery 30 years prior [to the original incident, which dated to 1895], were still laboring under Jim Crow laws. A trickster type of character would appeal to people in less than optimum conditions who saw no path to change.
Exactly so. In fact, Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers actually named his son after Stagger Lee, and cited Lee as a civil-rights hero on par with, for instance, his Panther co-founder Huey Newton. But there’s this:
Standin’ on the gallows,
Stack O’Lee did cuss,
The judge said let’s kill him
Before he kills some of us.
So sang Mississippi John Hurt in 1928. It would be thirty years before Mr. Lee was allowed to get away with it, and, well, a lot can happen in thirty years.