I’ve heard dozens of versions of this ballad over the years, and play three distinctly different ones, but the first I heard was by Woody Guthrie. As best I can tell, his version derived from Mississippi John Hurt’s recording, but if so it had changed a lot in the interim, just keeping a few verses and the tag line. A few years later I learned Hurt’s guitar part, with the help of Stefan Grossman’s Country Blues Guitar book, and have continued to sing a mix of Woody’s and Hurt’s verses, with a few added from Dave Van Ronk. Dave played Furry Lewis’s version, but likewise mixed and matched verses from elsewhere, and I just noticed that Cisco Houston did Lewis’s version as well.
That isn’t surprising, because African American blues records were very popular with white listeners in the 1920s and ’30s, especially in the Southwest.
When I was researching How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, I came across a letter to Billboard from a jukebox operator in Beaumont, Texas, saying, “When we get a Race number that proves a hit we just leave it on the machine until it wears out. They don’t get old and lose play like other records.”
“Stagolee” was based on a real event, the killing of Billy Lyons by “Stack Lee” Shelton in St. Louis on Christmas night in 1895, and the killing was truly over a hat — or actually two hats. As John Russell David writes in his dissertation, Tragedy in Ragtime, quoting from the transcript of the inquest:
[A] quarrel over politics soon turned to an exchange of blows. The two men began striking each other’s hats. Lee grabbed Lyons’ derby and broke it. In return Lyons grabbed Lee’s hat…
“Give me my hat,” said Lee.
“I ain’t going to give it to you, I want pay for this,” Lyons replied pointing to his derby.
“How much do you want?” Lee asked.
“I want six bits,” Lyons demanded.
“Six bits will buy a box of those kind of hat,” Lee replied.
“I want six bits,” Lyons shouted.
“Give me my hat,” Lee demanded. “If you don’t give me my hat, I’ll blow your brains out.”
“I ain’t going to give you the hat, you can kill me,” said Lyons putting his hand into his pocket as if reaching for a knife or some other weapon. Then Lyons demanded pay again from Shelton and approached him saying, “You cock-eyed son-of-a-bitch, I am going to make you kill me….”
As Lyons approached, Stack fired once. The impact of the bullet, fired at close range, carried Lyons back against the railing of the bar. He staggered momentarily, still clutching Lee’s hat in his fingers. Then he slumped onto the saloon floor. As he fell, Lee’s hat rolled from his grasp. “Give me my hat, nigger,” said Stack Lee. He picked up his hat beside Lyons’ outstretched hand and walked coolly out of the saloon into the brisk night air.