Versionality: “Stagger Lee”
About a month ago, while I was working on my Soundtrack Saturday post about Shag: The Movie, I tweeted that I never got sick of hearing Lloyd Price’s version of the blues folk song “Stagger Lee,” which is what Annabeth Gish and Scott Coffey’s characters dance to during the shag dancing contest at the end of the movie. In fact, I think I listened to it about 20 times just in the few hours it took me to write that post. The first time I’d ever heard any version of “Stagger Lee” was while watching Shag, and every time I hear Price sing it, I think of that scene and just want to put on my shaggin’ shoes and go to town. (Okay, so I don’t really know how to shag, but whatever.)
Seeing my tweet about my love for Mr. Price’s “Stagger Lee,” the lovely Jeff Giles asked if I’d ever heard the version by Chris Whitley & Jeff Lang. I replied that I hadn’t, and within the hour an MP3 was waiting in my in-box. After listening to it and telling Jeff how much I liked it, a discussion about some of the other versions of the song began, ultimately leading to the idea of this feature, which I hope continues with the thoughts of members of the talented Popdose staff on other oft-covered songs.
Now, much has been written about the Stagger Lee story and even about the many versions of the song; I’m certainly not going to try and rehash everything for you here. Instead I’d encourage you to read this and this, and if that’s not enough Stagger Lee history for you, there’s always Wikipedia. Rather, what I wanted to talk about here is what I love about the song and its many renditions.
As with any song, the way an artist interprets it can drastically change its meaning and how it makes the listener feel. For example, there are versions of “Stagger Lee” that make me want to get my ass out on the dance floor (Lloyd Price, Wilson Pickett, Ike & Tina Turner), some that make me want to curl up under a blanket on a rainy day with a big cup of hot cocoa (Mississippi John Hurt, Beck, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Mickey Baker), some that make me want to go spend the rest of my life in a smoky blues club (Jerry Lee Lewis, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Dr. John, the Black Keys), some that make me want to get in the car and go on a cross-country road trip (Bob Dylan, John Cephas & Phil Wiggins, Pacific Gas & Electric, the Grateful Dead), some that make me laugh (Neil Diamond, Samuel L. Jackson), and some that just make me want to get drunk and start a fight … or something (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds).
What I love about heavily covered, traditional, old songs like “Stagger Lee” is that, even though the story is rooted in a true tale and the lyrics in some of the versions are the same — or at least very similar — for the most part each artist tells the story in a slightly different way by how they sing and play the song. And if you don’t like one version of “Stagger Lee,” there are bound to be five others you’ll adore. I mean, I only knew of two or three versions before I started this post, and now I have about 20 that I love. Hell, I didn’t know the Clash’s “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” was a version of “Stagger Lee,” and I’m not too much of a music snob to admit that, either.
With the help of the wonderful Popdose staff, I’d like to present you with multiple — and fantastic — versions of the story of Stag and Billy. This is nowhere near all of them, so if you have one that’s not included here that you think everyone should hear, please don’t hesitate to post it in the comments. To that effect, if there’s an artist or band who hasn’t covered “Stagger Lee” that you think should, please share your thoughts on that as well (personally, I think Prince could do a killer version).
And, hey, since I’m the soundtrack girl, I have to ask: where’s the Stagger Lee movie? I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t jumped all over that shit yet — or have they? I couldn’t find anything about a film version of the tale, but if it was done right, I’ll bet it’d make an excellent movie with an amazing soundtrack.
Mississippi John Hurt – Stack O’Lee Blues
Lloyd Price – Stagger Lee
Grateful Dead – Stagger Lee [studio version]
The Clash – Wrong ‘Em Boyo
Mickey Baker – Stack O’Lee
Bob Dylan – Stack a Lee
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Stagger Lee
Taj Mahal – Stagger Lee
Woody Guthrie – Stackolee
Dr. John – Stagger Lee
Pete Seeger – Stagolee (Stagger Lee)
The Black Keys – Stack Shot Billy
Chris Whitley & Jeff Lang – Stagger Lee
Fats Domino – Stagger Lee (Live at Montreaux)
John Cephas & Phil Wiggins – Staggerlee (Stackolee)
Grateful Dead – Stagger Lee (Live in Egypt, 1978)
New Monsoon – Stagger Lee (Live)
Ike & Tina Turner – Stagger Lee and Billy
Pacific Gas & Electric – Staggolee
Samuel L. Jackson – Stack-o-Lee
Wilson Pickett – Stagger Lee
Beck – Stagolee
Neil Diamond – Stagger Lee
Jerry Lee Lewis – Stagger Lee
Huey Lewis & the News – Stagger Lee
The Fabulous Thunderbirds – Stagger Lee
Bill Haley & His Comets – Stagger Lee