The Annotated “Stacka Lee”

Comments on the famous murder ballad’s oldest known lyrics

Joachim Aspenlaub Blattboldt (Flickr/blattboldt)
Joachim Aspenlaub Blattboldt (Flickr/blattboldt)

Below is an annotation of the oldest known lyrics to “Stacka Lee.” Printed in the Kansas City Star on March 14, 1897 and rediscovered in 2020, they predate the first published sheet music by 13 years. The article in which they appeared, “The Songs of the Jails,” collected murder ballads popular among prisoners in Kansas City: “The negro prisoners at the jail put their sorrows into song as their forefathers in slavery on Southern plantations used to do. … At every hour of the day and early evening the hum of the negroes crooning jail made songs floats out between the bars.” This artifact shows just how quickly the story of “Stack Lee” Shelton became legend, and how many accurate details were preserved in the process. It offers a glimpse of one of the most important pieces of African-American folklore when it was only a few months old—and possibly a glimpse of its original author.

A song that is often rendered by the negro prisoners is “Stacka Lee,” an importation from St. Louis. It tells of a murder done in St. Louis, and its melody is peculiarly touching. The song is as follows:


Read Eric McHenry’s accompanying essay, “The Baddest Man in Town,” from our Spring 2021 issue.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Eric McHenry is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in The Yale Review, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and The Threepenny Review. He teaches creative writing at Washburn University and is a former poet laureate of Kansas.


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