Stagolee Shot Billy
Lee Shelton walked into a rowdy St. Louis bar on Christmas night, 1895. On his head he wore a “milk-white Stetson,” and he strutted, not strolled, through the bar, his hand gripping an elaborate ebony walking cane. He asked the patrons, “Who’s treating?” To this, someone pointed at Billy Lyons. After a few drinks together, their conversation (allegedly about politics) intensified, and they began to strike each other’s hats. Shelton broke the form on Lyons’ derby, and Lyons grabbed Shelton’s coveted Stetson. Moments later, as Mississippi John Hurt sang, “Boom-boom, boom-boom, went a .44/Well, when I spied ol’ Billy the Lion/He was lyin’ on the floor.”
While Cecil Brown shows us that this is where the story began, he fortunately doesn’t begin here. Instead, in Brown’s introduction, we’re sitting in North Carolina in the late 1950s, listening to his uncle and friends recite obscene versions of the story in a “toast” (the rhymed rhythmic speaking that later gave rise to rap music). This personal introduction is most appropriate for a book about a story that has, like St. Paul, “become all things to all people.”
Much ink has been spilled over Stagolee. Folklorists, blues historians, and Greil Marcus — the pointy-headed kid sitting in the front row of rock’s classroom — have taken aim at the story and its consequences. But none have taken such a comprehensive and compassionate view. Brown traces the historical figures of Shelton and Lyons, but he’s quick to point out that the history is not what’s important. Instead, it’s the way the story has traveled that matters.
And traveled it has. From riverboats, to sharecroppers, to minstrel shows, to gangsta rap — Brown traces the journey of the story from early prison blues to the hillbilly Fruit Jar Guzzlers in 1928, to Bobby Seale and the formation of the Black Panther party in the mid-’60s (Seale named his son Malik Nkrumah Staggerlee Seale), to Dylan’s World Gone Wrong in 1993. Throughout the journey, Brown’s goal isn’t to point out the historical contradictions with the way the story has been used. Instead, he gracefully sketches each situation and incantation — showing how a “Negro mack” became a “white outlaw,” how a “baaad nigger” became a folk hero.
Marcus claimed in a chapter partly about Stagolee in Mystery Train that this is “a story that black America has never tired of hearing and never stopped living out, like whites with their Westerns.” Brown takes this idea further, claiming that, like the formula of the Western, Stagolee works on people who need a hero and an outlaw.
More than anything else, Stagolee Shot Billy shows how much we need stories, and how willing we are to make them speak to us in every situation. Brown insists, “for without him we cannot be who we are as Americans.” And maybe he’s right. That bad man, that cruel Stagolee, is us.