From the cover of this book you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s going to be a Western. But while it’s set in the right period to qualify, Stagger Lee isn’t your typical cowboy. The character of Lee is based in historical fact but has become a folk anti-hero, heralded in songs from the dawn of recorded music through to the artists of today, via such illustrious but varied names as Duke Ellington, James Brown, The Clash and Nick Cave.
The story of Stagger Lee is basically straightforward – two men get involved in a drunken brawl, possibly over something as insubstantial as a Stetson, one of them gets shot and the other is punished for his crime. But this is about all that the various songs are capable of agreeing on. After that, the details then vary widely from the first known recording back in 1910 (though it’s thought the song would have been quite widespread by that time) to the modern variations.
This book isn’t so much an attempt at coming up with a definitive version, but is more of a celebration of the myth. While some research has clearly gone into finding out about the character, it’s the variations in the story, as interpreted by so many different artists, that attract McCulloch to the myth. But he also can’t help but add a little fiction of his own, interpreting the behaviour of Lee’s lawyers and sketching out some of the hypothetical situations.
It’s a fascinating journey and one that’s quite unique in comics, and should certainly encourage music fans to listen to the songs. But we found its structure left it a little lost in places: we felt we’d almost like to read either a history of the songs and the phenomenon, or this particular writer’s account of what he thinks might have happened. It touches both but feels like a master of neither.
Certainly, those who are already scholars of Stagger Lee may find the way this book is presented to be as fascinating as it’s clearly well-researched. But the lack of real focus and the fictionalisation of the antics of Lee’s lawyers detracts from its academic nature, while the fact that it isn’t a song almost pulls away from its validity to properly enter the Stagger Lee canon.