Lee “Stack” Shelton was a pimp and saloon owner, a “sport” who shot William Lyons for messing with his Stetson hat. Not such an unusual occurrence for the time and place — the “Bloody Third” Ward of St. Louis, circa 1895. But a number of elements conspired to make Shelton more than that, leading him to become the legendary Stagolee. In his book, Stagolee Shot Billy, Cecil Brown traces the evolution of Stagolee from real man to folk hero to mythological symbol.
“I knew that it was kind of an ur–myth, embedded in black culture,” explains Brown, currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, “because when I left North Carolina, I met other black men who knew it. And early gang leaders who became rappers, like Afrika Bambaataa and Ice-T, they knew Stagolee, and could do it as a toast. But the younger rappers have no idea; they’re not aware of it.” Stagolee Shot Billy took ten years to write, but the speedy way the book reads finds a parallel in the legend itself. Brown uses Stagolee “as an example of how we judge history on the books. So it looks like a hundred years is a long time, but if you look at it from the point of view of the folk culture, that’s nothing.”
Utilizing court documents, eyewitness accounts, and dozens and dozens of versions of “Stagolee,” the book covers everything from the evolution of ragtime to the origin of Lee Shelton’s nicknames. Not only does it link the “bad black man” of blues hollers, ragtime, and “coon songs” to the mack daddy of the ’70s and the gangsta rapper of today, Stagolee Shot Billy serves as an in-depth history lesson, covering the politics, economy, and social life of blacks and whites in turn-of-the-20th-century St. Louis, creating a detailed portrait of life in Chestnut Valley, Deep Morgan, and the rest of the Bloody Third. For more info, see www.stagoleeshotbilly.com
Brown appears at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Cody’s Books, 2454 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, for a reading, discussion, and book signing. He’ll be reciting “Stagolee,” as well, showcasing one of the main reasons the folk ballad has persevered. “You’ll see,” he insists. “It’s just beautiful.”