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The legend of Stagger Lee

The legend of Stagger Lee is one of the most important and enduring stories from American folklore.  It is a tale that comes from the African-American oral tradition, and it has also become a very popular story within the white community.

 There are many different versions of the tale, but here is the general storyline.  Stagger Lee (also known as Stagolee, Stack O' Lee, Stackerlee, Stackalee etc.) gets into a dispute with a man named Billy DeLyon (also known as Billy the Lion or  Billy Lyons) after losing his Stetson hat to Billy while gambling.  Stagger Lee pulls a gun--sometimes identified as a .45, other times as a "smokeless .44"--on Billy who then pleads to be spared for the sake of his wife and children.  Showing no compassion at all, Stagger Lee cold-bloodedly shoots and kills his opponent.  

The killer's reputation for "badness" is a key to the story.  According to some classic musical recordings of the legend (such as "Mississippi" John Hurt's "Stack O'Lee Blues"), the authorities are too frightened of Stagger Lee to arrest him for his crime.  In some versions of the tale, he is eventually caught by the authorities, but the judge refuses to sentence him to prison because he fears that the badman will strike back against him.   In certain tellings of the story, Stagger Lee appears in hell after he is killed or executed, but is so "bad" that he takes control of the devil's kingdom and turns it into his own badman's paradise.

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