All About that Stetson Hat
A review of Stagolee Shot Billy
by Cecil Brown (Harvard 2003)



by Paula K. V. Radice



There have been quite a few new editions of Dylan books to buy recently (most notably, new paperback editions of Robert Shelton's No Direction Home, and last year's "Don't You, Mr. Jones?" Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors, edited by Neil Corcoran  - both, incidentally, with different covers to earlier editions) but the most interesting book has been to be found on one of those tangential arcs on which Dylan sends us. Stagolee Shot Billy is an academic, yet enjoyably readable, examination of both the reality and myth of the "Staggerlee" (or "Stackalee" or "Stagolee") song, which Dylan - in the wake of dozens of other blues and folk (and originally, ragtime) singers - covered on World Gone Wrong.  It starts with a quote from Dylan's liner notes to the album: 

What does the [Stagolee] song say exactly?...It says no man gains immortality thru public acclaim. 

What was new to me was that, according to Brown, the "Stagolee" persona has achieved a deep-seated immortality in the consciousness of African-American men, as the counter-authority, proud black man who upholds his own honour and bows down to no-one; related to the Yoruba god of thunder, Shango, Stagolee stands apart, like the flash gangsta rapper of today, or the Superfly-type character of the 1970s, all of them "baaaaaaad niggers". In Cecil's words: 

..interest in Stagolee is widespread among black men throughout America, not just on Southern farms and in industrialized Northern ghettos, but also in Oklahoma, Montana and California...


Greil Marcus is quoted as saying that Stagolee a story that black America has never tired of hearing and has never stopped living out, like whites with their Westerns. 

The first part of the book delves into the historical reality of the story.  In 1895 in St. Louis a snappily-dressed "sportsman" (actually a pimp-cum-waiter-cum-carriage driver) Lee Shelton - also known as "Stag" or "Stack" Lee - shot and killed another black man, Billy Lyons, after the latter had snatched off his Stetson hat in a barroom brawl which had its roots in the local political rivalries of the town. 

Brown points out that the hat had a huge symbolic significance to Lee and other St. Louis "macks" (pimps) at the time, marking membership of a particular subculture; he compares it to the wearing of gang colours in inner cities today. Shelton's milk-white Stetson hat was a serious affair, having a rolled silk binding, and an embroidered picture of his prostitute girlfriend on the hatband.  An attack on such a hat was a direct assault on Stack's masculinity, hence the lines of the song that say that Stack was "bound" to kill Lyons. (I'd guess, given Dylan's fondness for wearing Stetsons in recent years, that he might well concur with this). 

The chapters setting the context of St. Louis' cultural and political life at the end of the nineteenth century are well-researched and engaging. Lee's position within his own political club, the "Four Hundred Club", and his status as the killer of the "bully" Lyons, were directly responsible for the popularity of the song that followed the murder and many versions of the song (but not the one that Dylan chose) still contain references to other players in the story - the judge, Stack's lawyer, his girlfriend, and the other prostitutes of the city. 

There is a short, but very interesting, chapter on Dylan's place in the development of the Stagolee myth, which revolves around these questions: "Is this recording [on World Gone Wrong] an African-American song? Is it a white version of an African-American song?...Does Bob Dylan express Stagolee for whites?  For blacks?"  Brown's thesis (and apparently others': several works I haven't read are referenced) is that Dylan has become a mediator between black and white cultures, expressing the viewpoint of "silent, unnoticed victims", and "becoming in effect a white Negro". What better honour could there be for a man who has spent most of the last half-century immersing himself in  the "hidden truths...the traces of an invisible world" that is the Blues? Stagolee Shot Billy concludes with an examination of Stagolee as both a cultural and political hero.  Brown quotes Black Panther Bobby Seale as saying that "Stagolee was a bad nigger off the block and didn't take shit from nobody" (echoes of Dylan's George Jackson there, and also of Ruben Carter), the archetype that also finds form in gangsta rap artists and "politicized" black figures like Malcolm X. In Cecil Brown's own words, "As an invisible hero, Stagolee is an image of a man who can find dignity in his own country, which seeks to disgrace him...Like Stagolee the African-American male is always a stranger in his own native land". 

A fascinating book, and highly recommended.