Stagger Lee is a song. You may have heard it; it was a hit in the 50s for Lloyd Price, as well as having many other versions over the years. Even Price’s take has two variations, because he cleaned up the lyrics for American Bandstand (his original was too violent for Dick Clark).
Stagger Lee is also an amazing book that looks at the story behind the song and the legend it describes. You don’t even need to know the music to appreciate this intertwined exploration of culture, fame, artistic creation, politics, racism, love, and revenge.
The book switches back and forth from a narrator discussing the song — as in the short introduction, which sets up the only key fact: Stagger Lee shot Billy — to a portrayal of the story and history as they unfold. For a saloon killing in 1895, the events are surprisingly relevant and modern, with “bad men” taking out their frustrations on each other. And over a hat, of all things! Was that the 19th century form of bling? Or just a distraction from more meaningful causes of violence?
There’s a whole lot more to it, though, especially once the potent combination of politics and race is highlighted. Billy’s well-known family is determined to see the villain punished, but the shooter’s got his own powerful friends.
Using the art by Shepherd Hendrix to its full advantage, writer Derek McCulloch illustrates the difference between a man and a larger-than-life gangsta legend, regardless of era. Plus, the paper isn’t smooth or white, and the ink is brown instead of black. Together, these elements give the feel of reading an old newspaper, a nicely chosen detail that adds to the historical atmosphere.
The frequent interjections to point out the history of the lyrics keep the material moving, heighten the drama of what really happened, and provide some thought-provoking questions regarding the oral tradition. Notes at the back provide more detail on what’s factual and what’s fictional, as well as recommendations for further reading and/or listening.
As the narrator traces the varying song lyrics and roles, I’m reminded of the current debate concerning the overlapping topics of plagiarism and group creation (as with wikipedia, for example). In the internet era, it’s not so far-fetched to consider something coming out of many hands with no clear starting point when it became what it’s best known for. The comic format makes it all more immediate and experiential.