Essays – Got The Blues For Mean Old Stack O’Lee

Got The Blues For Mean Old Stack O’ Lee

by Max Haymes

Stack 0’ Lee of course, is the notorious badman who attained legendary status around the turn of the century, and who has been much eulogised and sung about in black folklore; especially in the world of the Blues.

His origins are obscure, although English Blues aficionado, Paul Oliver, has come up with a possible answer. “The original Stacker Lee was the son of Jim Lee, founder in 1866 of the celebrated Lee Line of riverboats on the Mississippi. Jim Lee named his boats after his sons, so that Stacker Lee was also the name of the third of a fleet that eventually, by the turn of the century, numbered fourteen. Stacker Lee had been a cavalryman in the Confederate Army who fathered several sons of young black women, of whom one, according to Shields McIlwaine, was “a short black fellow, a cabin boy on the Anchor Line…a black with a bad eye” and a killer, Stack Lee”. (l). This would make our subject, the grandson of Jim Lee, the original ‘Stack 0’ Lee’. Another possibility is that Stack 0’ Lee was a roustabout on one of the fourteen boats, even the ‘Jim Lee’ (actually the ‘James Lee’) itself, which is referred to by Charlie Patton, the archetypal Mississippi Delta Bluesman in his “Jim Lee Blues-Part 2”, this being the second riverboat of this name:

 “Jim Lee, Jim Lee, come shine a light on me,
An’ the side-wheel knockin’, Lord, I fear the deep” (water).
“The ‘Jim Lee’ up the river, backin’ up an’ down,
An’ the side-wheel knockin’, Lord, I’m water-bound.”(2).

As Patton seems to refer to the imminent sinking of his particular steamboat, not an unlikely occurrence on the Mississippi at that time, this could be the fate of the original ‘James Lee’, hence ‘James Lee II’. Kent relates “The Jim Lee was a Mississippi riverboat, and other dissimilar songs about it have been canvassed from older musicians in the Memphis area.”(3).

However, contrasting Oliver’s report on the “celebrated Lee Line”, some four years later, Calt and Wardlow have this to say: “The James Lee II and the Stacker Lee had been among the fourteen steamboats operated by the Lee Line of Memphis, whose owner (Robert Edward Lee) named his entire fleet for his numerous sons. Songs about his boats had probably sprung into existence with the inception of his fleet in 1890, when it ran between Memphis and Friar’s Point. (Later, the route was extended to Vicksburg.).” (4). The name of the owner of Lee Line steamers, at least, is confirmed, as one of the fourteen craft was the “Robert Lee Junior” which features as one of the excellent Blues recorded by the Memphis Jug Band as “Bob Lee Junior Blues”, although by the time of the recording (1927), the name had been transferred to a locomotive. The Lee Line having folded around this time.

Oliver seems to be referring to another person who worked for a rival (?) steamboat company, the Anchor Line. Whatever the truth of his origins, the fact remains that he is remembered as “. ..a bad man, a ruthless killer,”(5), a “COLORED gambler, killer and bad man (6), and “…one of the meanest”(7) of all bad men. What follows is an attempt to “defend” Stack 0’ Lee, whilst not condoning his crimes, by citing extenuating circumstances!

The reason for the foregoing ‘character assessments’ hinge on two details, as related in the songs about Stack 0’ Lee. Both details involve the incident of a card-game where the latter loses his Stetson hat, to one Billy Lyons, and spurns the pleas of Billy or his wife/sister, and promptly shoots Lyons with his 44/45 gun. The sheer banality of the excuse for murdering Billy coupled with the cold callousness of actually committing the act, despite the heartfelt entreaties for the victim’s life, are the two facets of Stack 0’ Lee’s make-up which earned him the dubious accolade “one of the meanest badmen.”

On an early summer’s day in Chicago in 1927, two singers, whose style seems to pre-date the Blues, accompanied themselves on guitars and gave a fairly full account. Although the third stanza seems to suffer from role reversal:

  1. “Stagolee was a bully, he bullied all his life,
     Well, he bullied to Chicago Town with a ten cent pocket knife.”

Ref: “Well it’s, cold? Stagolee.”

  1. “Stag. said to Billy, ‘how can it be?
    You arrest a man as bad as me, but you won’t ‘rest Stagolee”.

Ref: “Well it’s, cold Stagolee.”

Spoken:”Oh! bad man.”

  1. “Stag. said to Billy, don’t you take my life,
    Well I ain’t got but two lil’ children, an’ a darlin’ lovin’ wife.”

Ref: “Well it’s, cold Stagolee.”

  1. “One is a boy an’ the other is a girl,
    Well you may see your children again, but it’ll be in another world.”

Ref: “An’ it’s, cold Stagolee.”

  1. “Standin’ on the corner, well I didn’t mean no harm,
    Well a policeman caught me, well he grabbed me by my arm.”

Ref:        “An’ it’s, cold Stagolee.”

  1. “Stagolee an’ Billy had a noble sight,
    Well Stagolee killed Billy Lyon one cold, dark stormy night.”

Ref: “Singin’, cold Stack 0’ Lee.”

Spoken: “Oh! play it boy.”

  1. “Staridin’ on the hill top, the dogs begin to bark,
     Well it was nuthin’ but Stack 0’ Lee come creepin’ in the dark.”

Ref: “It’s, cold Stagolee.”(8).

Recorded as “The Downhome Boys”, who “…may have come from the Alabama/Miss­issippi border,”(9), this version seems to posit Lyons as a policeman. While the opening stanza only registers Stack O’ Lee as a bully, the 3rd. and 4th. ones both allude to the ‘callous facet’ already referred to. But no mention of the Stetson hat. The 5th. reads out of context, and seems to be a thinly-veiled protest against the way blacks could be arrested for merely ‘standing around’, usually on a trumped-up charge of vagrancy. Meanwhile, the last stanza would seem to imply something of the supernatural, as the dogs sense an evil presence that gets ever closer.

Some five months later, Memphis domicile Furry Lewis recorded his “Billy Lyons Arid Stack O’Lee”, also in the Windy City. He included a little moralising in the refrain:

  1. “I remember one September on one Friday night,
    Stack O’Lee an’ Billy had a great fight.”

Ref:        “Cryin’, when you lose your money, learn to lose.”

  1. “Little Lyon shot six bits, Stack O’Lee bet ‘e pass,
     Stack O’Lee out with his forty—five, sayin’ you done shot your last

Ref:        “When you lose your money, learn to lose.”

  1. “Lord, a woman come a-runnin’, fell down on ‘er knees,
    Cryin’ ‘Oh Mr. Stack O’Lee don’t shoot my brother, please”.

Ref:        “When you lose your money.. .“

  1. “I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout some gamblers, oughta see Richard Lee,
    Shot one thousand dollars, an’ come out on a three.”

Ref:        “Cryin’, when you lose your money, learn to lose.”

  1. “Lord, the judge told the sheriff, we want ‘im dead or ‘live,
    How in the world can we bring ‘im in, when he’s totin’ a forty-five

Ref:        “When you lose your money, learn to lose.”

  1. “Lord, the woman told the judge, my husband’s name Jack Shepp?
    Wanna arrest po’ Stack O’Lee, better go somewheres else.”

Ref:        “When you lose your money, learn to lose.”(10).

This is a far more sympathetic Blues towards ‘Stack’ whom Furry names ‘Richard’ (his real name?). Although the ‘callous facet’ is hinted at in the third stanza, the rest of the song seems to hold our anti-hero? in awe. Eulogising his apparent infallibility at the gambling table and his unstoppable prowess with a forty-five pistol. But again, no mention of the Stetson hat. The last stanza seems to evince a grudging feeling of admiration (and infatuation?) from the woman who has lost her brother at the hand of Stack O’ Lee.

Mississippi John Hurt

In the following year, 1928, the gentle-voiced Mississippi John Hurt, an excellent guitar-picker, put his own ‘Stack’ on record:

  1. “Police officer, how can it be?
    You can ‘rest everybody but cruel Stagolee.”

Ref:        “That bad man, oh! cruel Stagolee.”

  1. “Mr. Lyon told Stagolee, please don’t take my life,
    I got two little babes, an’ a darlin’ lovin’ wife.”.

Ref:        “That bad man, etc.

  1. “What I care about two little babes, a darlin’ lovin’ wife?
    You done stole my Stetson hat, I’m bound to take your life.”

Ref:        “That bad man, etc.

  1. Hummed verse
  2. Hummed verse.
  3. “Boom boom, boom boom, went a forty-four,
    The winn(t)er sky filled with light, he was lyin’ there on the floor.”

Ref:        “That bad man, etc.

  1. “Gentlemens of the jury, what do you think of that?
    Stagolee killed Billy Lyons about a five-dollar Stetson hat.”

Ref:        “That bad man, etc.

  1. “Standin’ on the gallows, his head way up high,
    At twelve o’clock they killed him, they’se all glad to see him die

Ref:     “That bad man, oh! cruel Stagolee.”(11).

It is with this recording that it is established, beyond all doubt, the ‘fact’ that Stack O’ Lee is a callous, cold-hearted killer. Nowhere to more telling effect than in the sixth stanza, where Hurt contrasts the darkness of Billy Lyon’s ‘new world’ of the dead, with that of the brightness of the “winner sky”. Incidentally, dating the incident a bit later in the year than the Furry Lewis version which revolves around a Friday night in September. The apparently banal excuse for this crime is centred, for the first time on the killer’s Stetson. At first recounted in the third stanza, Hurt offers this ‘evidence’ in the seventh, where the singer adopts the role of prosecuting attorney; presumably asking for the death sentence. Having achieved his aim, in the eighth, he points to the lack of repentance and remorse on the part of Stack O’ Lee as he is about to die, and Hurt rests ‘his Case’.

And rest it did, until some 22 years later when an innovative Blues pianist from New Orleans, under the name of ‘Archibald’, recorded his “Stack-A-Lee” in two parts. Using just bass, drums, and an inaudible banjo? as accomp­animent to his fine rolling piano, ‘Archibald’ sang:

  1. “I was standin’ on the corner, when I heard my bulldog(s) bark,
    They were barkin’ at the two men who were garblin’ in the dark.”
  2. “That was Stack-A-Lee an’ Billy, two mens who gamblin’ late,
    Stackolee throwed seven an’ Billy swore that he throwed eight.”
  3. “Stack-A-Lee told Billy, I can’t leave you go with that,
    You done won all my money an’ my brand new Stetson hat.”
  4. “Stack-A-Lee went runnin’ down that lonesome railroad track,
    I’m gon’ kill you now Billy, but don’t be here when I come back.”
  5. “Stack-A-Lee went home, an’ he got his forty-four,
    Says, I’m goin’ to the bar-room, just to pay that debt I owe.”
  6. “Stack-A-Lee went to the bar-room, an’ he stood across the bar-­room door,
    Says, don’t nobody move ‘cos I got my forty-four.”
  7. “Now old Billy told Stack, oh! please don’t take my life,
    I got three little children an’ a very sickly wife.”
  8. “Stack-A-Lee shot Billy, how he shot that poor boy so fast,
    The bullet went through poor Billy an’ it broke the bartender(’s) glass. “ (12)

Archibald (real name-Leon T. Gross) reintroduces the card-game scenario and continues with Hurt’s theme, regarding the Stetson. Only here, Stack O’ Lee loses it at the gambling table, rather than by Lyons stealing it. Both the ‘banal’ and ‘callous’ facets are included in stanzas 3,7,and 8. Lyons, by now no longer a policeman, begins to emerge as more of an actual person – and not a very nice one at that. Given the sometimes supernatural aura which surrounded Stack O’ Lee, judging by the songs alone, which originated around 1899 accord­ing to Oliver (13); Lyons would seem to be an incredibly stupid and moronic character. Having been involved in a dispute at cards which invariably, at that time, ended with blazing guns, and given Stack’s prowess with a 44/45, Lyons should have made good his escape with the money and the hat, when he had the chance. And what kind of man leaves his wife who is desperately ill, with three young children, to go gambling and drinking! In my conclusion I intend to show that this account is a very flawed version of the ‘truth’, in any case.

In Part 2 of this version, we come across the supernatural aura alluded to earlier, about Stack O’ Lee, in a more explicit form:

  1. “Stack-A-Lee went ‘round the corner, an’ they shot Stack in his side,
    Stack-A-Lee went stumblin’ in his mother’s do’.”
  2. “He said ‘mother, oh! mother, won’t you turn me over slow,
    I bin jabbed in my left side with a police forty-four.”
  3. “When all the ladies heard that Stack, oh! Stack-A-Lee was dead,
    Some come dressed in orange colour, an’ some come dressed in red.”
  4. “Stack-A-Lee went to the Devil, to identify poor Billy’s soul,
    But the poor boy was absent, he had burned down to char-coal.”
  5. “Now the Devil heard a rumblin’, a mighty rumblin’ under the ground,
    Says, it must be Mr. Stack, turnin’, baby, upside down.”
  6. “Now this (is) it, the Devil picked on top of the Devil’s shelf,
     Says, if you want Mr. Stack, you go an’ git him by yourself.” (14).

Stack O’ Lee was obviously even too much for Satan!! Billy Lyons, by his burnt presence? in hell, was an even nastier person than intimated in Part 1. ‘Decent-living folk?, when they die, do not get burnt to charcoal in the Devil’s domain. In the fourth stanza, it is implied that Stack O’ Lee and the Devil were no strangers to each other. This was indeed the case. Around nine years later, rhythm and blues singer Lloyd Price, ‘broke’ internationally with his version of “Stagger Lee”, reaching as high as number 7 in the British Top Twenty in April, 1959 (15). Price’s recording followed Part 1 of Archibald’s rendition, almost word for word.

As I stated at the beginning of this article, Stack O’ Lee’s ‘bad rep­utation’ hinged on two facets of his character, regarding the Billy Lyons incident. His callousness in shooting Billy despite his pleas for his family, and the sheer banality of the reason for the murder in the first place. As Mississippi John Hurt said to the jury, what do you think of a man who kills another “about a five-dollar Stetson hat?”

If this was just a five-dollar hat then Stack O’ Lee was everything that was said about him. However, this was no ordinary head-gear. Apparently, Stack had a weakness for new hats: “Stack was crazy about Stetson hats; specially them great big five gallon hats with dimples in the crown. And he had a whole row of em hanging on pegs and you could look at em along the wall of his rickety shanty on Market Street in St. Louis, where he lived with his woman, Stack O’ Dollars,” (16). The latter, who also wore a Stetson, ran a gambling saloon in St. Louis called the Silver Moon. “But his favourite was an oxblood magic hat that folks claim he made from the raw hide of a man-eatin’ panther that the devil had skinned alive. And like I told you, how come Stack to have it was because he had sold his soul to old Scratch. You see, Satan hear about Stack’s weakness, so he met him that dark night and took him into the grave yahd (sic) where he coaxed him into tradin’ his soul, promisin’ him he could do all kinds of magic and devilish things long as he wore that oxblood Stetson and didn’t let it get away from him. And that’s the way the devil fixed it so when Stack did lose it he would lose his head, and kill a good citizen, and run right smack into his doom.” (l7).

In view of the foregoing, it is little wonder that Stack O’ Lee killed Billy Lyons to regain his Stetson hat. Although in the post-war recordings of Archibald and Lloyd Price, Stack loses his hat as part of his stake in a gambling game (probably ‘Coon-Can’), it would seem an incredibly foolhardy act to put your soul on the line as well as your money. Far more likely that Billy Lyons did indeed steal the Stetson, knowing full well of its magical properties. He obviously hoped, mistakenly, that its powers would rub off on him. He also knew of the consequences; not only death by ‘lead poisoning’ from Stack’s forty-four, but also the eternal frying of his soul in hell. But he cared little for his “three little children an’ a very sickly wife” when he stole the oxblood hat in cold premeditation. That Billy Lyons was also a “bad man” is clearly indicated by his descent to hell and burning “down to charcoal.”

In any case, even if Stack O’ Lee had gambled away his hat and therefore his soul, he would hardly have been unarmed which would have caused him to leave the table arid go “runnin’ down that lonesome railroad track” for his gun. Certainly, a man of his awesome reputation would have carried his forty-four everywhere he went, in 1899, especially in gambling saloons.

To be as fair as possible to Lyons, another report has it that the Devil was getting tired of waiting for Stack O’ Lee’s soul and decided to take a hand in speeding things up. He reasoned thus. If Stack O’ Lee was killed, or executed for killing, another bad man, then maybe God would not let his soul be lost in hell. But if Stack was to kill an innocent family man, then the “… Lord would be mad and let Satan have him.”(18). The report (from “Direction, Vol. IV”; by Onah L. Spencer. c.1941) is worth relating in its entirety. Not only because it exonerates Billy Lyons, regarding my allegations to his char­acter, but also because it illustrates that Stack O’ Lee, at least on this occasion, was not the callous killer who murders for the merest trifling excuse. “One cold, frosty Friday night when Stack was havin’ one of his lucky streaks, in a big coon can game down at Jack O’ Diamond’s place in St. Louis, he was so busy pickin’ up his money that he hung his oxblood Stetson on the back of his cheer. That’s when Old Scratch, keepin’ his eye peeled, changed hisself to look like Billy Lyons. Then he snatched the magic hat and tore out toward the White Elephant Barrel House where he knowed Billy was. When the devil got to the door he disappeared. Stack came runnin’ up and seen Billy standin’ by the door, lookin as innercent as you please, smokin, and watchin the can can dancers.

And there is where Stack shot him through and through. Billy pleaded for his life, on account of his wife and babies. But Stack, mad as blue blazes because he had lost the magic hat that kept the law from ketchin him, blazed away and blasted poor Billy down.” (19).

In the Blues I have reproduced as “evidence”, a thread of sympathy, awe, and sneaking regard can be detected. This is true even in the damning version by Mississippi John Hurt, in his line: “Standin’ on the gallows, his head way up high,”. This is, I suspect, partly because he was a fellow black American who was taking on authority, and therefore the white, ruling classes, but also be­cause he was a fellow Bluesman. “Stack was popular with the women folks cause he could whup the blues on a guitar, and beat out boogie woogie music piano bass and the like of that,”(20). But despite this possible bias, I would suggest that a charge of First Degree Murder would be totally unjustified. The only premeditation was in the shape of old Scratch/Billy Lyons. With the theft of his magic, oxblood Stetson, Stack O’ Lee could see his soul’s future ending up in the fiery furnaces of hell, so he reacted instantly and devastatingly. That he killed Billy Lyons is undeniable. But it was the reaction, I would suggest, of any person in the same situation. It was a crime of passion, as the French term it, or manslaughter in British law. I do not defend Stack O’ Lee as a human being but in the case of the killing of Billy Lyons, I would ask for a commuting of the death sentence to life imprisonment; and therefore the charge should read Second Degree Murder.

It is interesting to note that a version of “Stack O’Lee” is quoted in the reports edited by Botkin. It includes 38 verses! and one of them indicates that the court did indeed commute the sentence:

“Now the trial’s come to an end, how the folks gave cheers,
 Bad Stackolee was sent down to Jefferson pen for seventy-five years.”(21).

Although rather confusingly, the last line of the preceding stanza ran:

“The jury finds you guilty of murder in the first degree.”(22).

The ‘Jefferson pen’ was presumably referring to a penitentiary in Jefferson City, MO. Apparently, in 1941 he’d “…already served 34 of em (years) and got 41 more to serve there yet.”(23).

On this reckoning, Stack would have been out in 1982! However, as he was born in 1861, the problem of his rehabilitation into St. Louis society, is a purely academic one!


1. Oliver. p.238.

2.”Jim Lee Blues-Part 2”. Charlie Patton (vo. gtr.). c.-/l0/29.Grafton,Wis.


4.Calt & Wardlow. p.200.

5. Oliver. ibid.



8.”Origirial Stack O’ Lee Blues.” Papa Harvey Hull (vo. gtr., prob. speech), Long Cleve Reed (vo. gtr.). c.-/5/27.Chicago,I1l.

9. Oliver. ibid.

10.”Billy Lyons And Stack O’ Lee.” Furry Lewis (vo. gtr.). 9/lO/27.Chicago,Ill.

11. ”Stack O’ Lee Blues.” Mississippi John Hurt (vo. gtr.). 28/l2/28.New York City.

12.”Stack-A-Lee Part 1”. Archibald (vo. pno.), Chuck Badie (bs.), Thomas Moore (dms.) poss. Harrison Verrett (bjo.). 23/3/50.New Orleans, La.


14.”Stack-A-Lee Part 2”. Archibald (vo. pno.), Chuck Badie (bs.), Thomas Moore (dms.) poss. Harrison Verrett (bjo.). 23/3/50.New Orleans, La.

15.Jones & Jasper.p.44.

16.Botkin.ibid.p. 54.









1.Oliver Paul. “Songsters& Saints”. Cambridge University Press. 1984.

2.Kent Don. Notes to “Patton, Sims And Bertha Lee-1929-34.” L.P. Herwin 213. June,1977.

3.Calt Stephen & Gayle Wardlow. “King of the Delta Blues-The Life and Music of Charlie Patton”. Rock Chapel Press. 1988.

4.Botkin B.A. “The American People.” Pilot Press. London. 1946.

5.Courlander Harold. “Negro Folk Music”. Columbia University Press. London. 1966..

6.Jories Peter & Tony Jasper. “20 Years Of British Record Charts”. Queen Anne Press. London. 1976.

7.Details of post-war recordings from notes to “Archibald-The Complete New Orleans Sessions 1950-1952.” L.P. Krazy Kat KK 7409. 1983.

8.Details of pre-war recordings from “Blues & Gospel Records 1902-1943”. R.M.W.Dixon & J.Godrich. 3rd.Ed. Storyville. 1982.


Copyright © 2000 Max Haymes. All rights reserved.