By then, Shelton was 46 years old and suffering from tuberculosis. Missouri's Democrat governor Herbert Hadley, pressured by others in his party, made one final bid to get him another parole, but this was blocked by the state's Attorney General. Shelton died in Jefferson City prison hospital on March 11, 1912. How many times had he heard his own story sung back at him by then?
Of course, if the songs and folktales are to be believed, matters didn't end with Shelton's death. There's a strong tradition among New Orleans performers, perhaps stemming from Archibald's 1950 recording, which continues the story as Stag descends into hell, terrifies the devil and takes over his throne. This aspect of the story appears in the most unlikely places. Even the innocuous country crooner Tennessee Ernie Ford got in on the act with his 1950 Stack-O-Lee:
“When the devil see Stack comin'
He holler 'Now listen to me,
Hide the children and the money,
'Cause Stack-O-Lee is worse than me'
“Stack-O-Lee grabbed hold of the devil,
And threw him up on the shelf,
Said 'Your workin' days are over,
I'm a-gonna run the place myself'.” (20)
Sometimes Billy ends up in hell too, allowing Stack to inflict still more punishment on him in the afterlife. Here's a verse from Dr John's 1972 version, Stack-A-Lee:
“Now the devil,
Heard a rumbling,
A mighty rumbling under the ground,
He said 'That must be Mr Stack,
Turning Billy upside-down'.” (21)
Folktales about Stack often link him to the devil too. Some claim he was born double-jointed or with a birth caul covering his face, both taken as signs of a demon child. Others have him do a Robert Johnson style deal with Satan, selling his soul at the crossroads to gain supernatural powers. One tale, collected by BA Botkin in his Treasury of American Folklore, even explains why Stack loved his Stetson hat so much:
“Stack was crazy about Stetson hats. [...] But his favourite was an oxblood magic hat that folks claim he made from the raw hide of a man-eatin' panther the devil had skinned alive. [...] You see, Satan heard about Stack's weakness, so he met him that dark night and took him into the grave yahd where he coaxed him into tradin' his soul, promisin' 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” (22)
As Stagger Lee moved from one genre of recorded music to another, shifting persona as he went, there was one strand of his tale which remained firmly underground. No version of Stag's story sanctioned by the professional recording industry was ever going to be intense enough for real ghetto thugs to accept, so they produced their own “toasts” instead.
These were unaccompanied spoken-word accounts of Stag's life, chanted at the listener with percussive force and driving their points home through regular rhyming couplets. They were sexually explicit, usually told in the first person, and full of inventive swearing. Like the rappers who followed them, toasters could use these tales to portray themselves as charismatic, powerful gangsters who the white police held in awe.
The first Stagger Lee toast was collected in 1911. For the next 50 years, it was taken for granted that the toasts were far too foul-mouthed ever to make a commercial recording. Isolated from every respectable genre of music, they retained their own unique take on Stag's story. The Stetson hat is mentioned only in passing and Billy slips into the background. Instead, Stag's primary victim is the barman at a place called The Bucket of Blood. Sometimes the barman deliberately serves Stag with inedible food. In other versions, he first refuses to recognise him, and then treats him with utter contempt. Then Stag shoots him.
The barman's name is never given, but it's pretty clear that he represents Henry Bridgewater, the man most responsible for getting Shelton arrested and jailed after the real murder. He is Lex Luthor to Stag's Superman, and that's the aspect of the story which the toasts set out to commemorate. The Bucket of Blood, incidentally, was a real saloon/whorehouse in St Louis. Whether it had any connection with Bridgewater, I don't know, but someone obviously thought the name was too good to waste.
The first commercial recording of Stag's toast in anything like its uncut form appears on Snatch & The Poontang's 1969 album For Adults Only. The Poontangs - an alias for R&B veteran Johnny Otis and his band - provide a whole album of uncensored street toasts, delivered with all the panache you'd expect from such road-hardened performers. There's a great deal of swearing, springing mostly from the fact that everyone in the song seems to be a motherfucker.
Like most toasts of the song, The Poontangs' version can be traced back to one which appears in Dennis Wepman's 1986 book The Life: The Lore and Folk Poetry of the Black Hustler. Wepman includes a Stagger Lee toast performed by a black inmate called Big Stick at New York State's Auburn Prison in 1967. The words themselves are a great deal older than that:
“He walked through rain and he walked through mud,
Till he came to a place called the Bucket of Blood,
He said 'Mr Motherfucker you must know who I am',
Barkeep said 'No and I don't give a good goddamn',”
“He said 'Well bartender it's plain to see,
I'm that bad motherfucker named Stagger Lee',
Barkeep said 'Yeah I heard your name down the way,
But I kick motherfucking asses like you every day',
“Well those were the last words that the barkeep said,
'Cause Stag put four holes in his motherfucking head.” (23)