When I taught Czech university students I played them three versions of Stagger Lee. And, since it was a conversation class, I had them discus the similarities and differences before telling them my thoughts. As an ESL teacher, it’s important to avoid injecting your own bias as much as possible. I’m not always successful, but I try.
The first of the three versions of Stagger Lee I played was Mississipi John Hurt’s (Stack O’ Lee). Many consider this version the definitive story of Stagger and William DeLyons. And that makes sense. It did come out in 1928, after all. Things of note in this version: Stack strikes fear in the community. He’s a cruel man and a bad man, and the cops can’t, don’t, or won’t arrest him. The myth of Stack or Stag as pure evil is on full display here. Also notable, Billy steals Stack’s stetson hat, and Stack kills him for it. Keep this detail in mind for later. Also of note, Stack uses a .44 to kill Billy. Something else to keep in mind. Finally, in this version, the law hangs Stack, and everyone is happy.
So, to recap, this first version of the story is the oldest and sets the template. All other tellings of this story owe it. At some point, though no mention of it occurs in this telling, the story evolves into a gambling disagreement. In some of those variations, Billy cheats Stagger Lee, and Stag kills him for it. Still, no matter how you slice it, the core of the story is that Stack/Stag is a menace to his community. People fear him and the police are powerless. He’s the Boogeyman, only real. In his telling, Nick Cave takes this theme to the extreme.
Three Versions of Stagger Lee: Nick Cave Gets Explicit
If Mississippi John Hurt gives us the menace that is Stack O Lee, Nick Cave gives us the terror of that man. Hurt’s version is subtle and understated. Cave’s version is everything but that. Stagger Lee, as interpreted by Cave is a brash and vile murderer. He’s also making a name for himself as evidenced by him having to tell the bartender who he is.
He’s a killer and a rapist. He is as immoral as they come, but still somehow cool. If Tarantino wrote songs, he would share co-writing credit with Cave.
It was interesting playing this second of the three versions of Stagger Lee to my class because it is so different. They were college students, and I warned them of the explicit nature. Still, I did worry that I was crossing the line of good taste. Of course, Nick Cave and good taste don’t go hand in hand. Thankfully, my students didn’t report me to the bosses.
And, they drew the obvious connections: Pork pie hat, bad man. But they also noticed the differences: in Cave’s rendition, Stag is much sexier (explicit). Seriously, listen to that groove, and tell me it doesn’t ooze sex. You can’t.
Another difference between this telling and Hurt’s is that Stag gets away with it. The song ends with Stagger forcing Billy to perform fellatio and then killing him. In an extended version, which I didn’t play for my students, Stagger is worse. He rapes the devil if you can believe it.
Nearly a century passed between Hurt’s version and Cave’s version, which accounts for the visceral difference. Of course, others were playing around with the legend of Stagger Lee in between, and that leads me to Waits’ Small Change.
Tom Waits’ Small Change Is A Different Telling of the Same Story
Now, in all my admittedly limited, research, I’ve yet to find anyone else connecting Small Change to Stagger Lee. But I stand by the connection. Both Stack O Lee by MJH and Stagger Lee by NC tell the story of a bad man with a hat and a gun. Sure, this isn’t much to go on, but the similarities to Small change are too close to deny. All three versions of Stagger Lee mention a hat, a gun, and the general fear of the community. The big difference is Hurt and Cave concern themselves with how nasty the titular character is.
Waits, on the other hand, acknowledges he’s nasty, but adds some optimism to the story. In Small Change, the communal menace gets killed on the street. And the killer uses his own gun, a .38. Here’s something interesting, in Hurt’s version it’s a .44. In Cave’s version it’s a .45. The caliber of the weapon grows in accordance with the menace. Yeah, Hurt’s version is a bad and cruel man, but he is only a simple murderer. Cave’s .45 wielding maniac is a rapist, a terror, and larger than life. Of course he wields the biggest weapon of the three versions of Stagger Lee I am discussing.
Small Change is Billy, Not Stagger Lee
That was the argument made by a student when I played these three songs. She argued that Small Change was Billy. Her reasons: the name, the hat, and the gun. Basically, Small Change, with his .38 is the odd man out. Not only is his name not Stagger or Stack, he’s got a pea shooter. Yes, Small Change terrorizes the neighborhood, but he’s fallible. It’s not the police who capture him, and he doesn’t live. In fact, his killer remains unknown. “Someone will head south until this whole thing cools off.” He doesn’t exude the overall menace of the other two. I am [paraphrasing because it’s been years, but that’s the gist.
On one hand, I can see this. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I can see it. More importantly, I appreciated this amount of thought and consideration from my student, and she made a logical and compelling argument. It happens to be one I think doesn’t hold up, but one I still think about nearly 10 years later.
Small Change is a Version of Stagger Lee
While I respect my student’s idea about this, I disagree. For one, in Small Change people are happy to see him die, just as they are in the other songs. In none of these three versions are people happy at Billy’s death.
Two, his death offers a chance at a better life: “The dreams aren’t broken now, they’re waling with a limp. Now that Small Change got rained on with his own .38.” Billy’s death would do no such thing.
Third, the newsboy steal the hat. If Stagger Lee were alive, that newsboy would be dead.
So, there you have my thoughts on three different versions of Stagger Lee as filtered through a teaching experience I once had. I hope you enjoyed reading this long diatribe.