Smarty Pants Podcast

Oh, Cruel Stagolee

Why you should never mess with a bad man’s hat

By Stephanie Bastek | April 2, 2021

Stagger Lee is “The Baddest Man in Town,” as poet and critic Eric McHenry writes in our Spring 2021 issue. The man behind the myth—“Stack” Lee Shelton—was a real person, who did many if not most of the things ascribed to him in song (except, perhaps, go down to hell and take over for the devil). The bar, the hat, the gun, all have become mainstays of African-American folklore in the 120 years since Lee made his debut in song. McHenry joins us on the podcast for a look into the life and legend of Stagger Lee, which he exhumed through newly digitized newspaper records and troves of archival recordings—including the conversation between an elderly St. Louis musician and a 1970s graduate student that plucked Lee from a rich oral history tradition and back into the written record.

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