"Delia whistled a different tune--what tune could that be?"

The Annotated "Stagger Lee"

An installment in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd

"Stagger Lee"
Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia
Copyright Ice Nine Publishing; used by permission.

1940 Xmas evening with a full moon over town
Staggerlee met Billy DeLyon
and he blew that poor boy down
Do you know what he shot him for?
What do you make of that?
'Cause Billy DeLyon threw lucky dice,
won Staggelee's Stetson hat

Baio, Baio, tell me how can this be?
You arrest the girls for turning tricks
but you're scared of Staggerlee
Staggerlee is a madman and he shot my Billy dead
Baio you go get him or give the job to me

Delia DeLyon, dear sweet Delia-D
How the hell can I arrest him when he's twice as big as me?
Don't ask me to go downtown - I wouldn't come back alive
Not only is that mother big but he packs a .45

Baio Delia said just give me a gun
He shot my Billy dead now I'm gonna see him hung
She waded to DeLyon's Club through Billy DeLyon's blood
Stepped up to Staggerlee at the bar
Said Buy me a gin fizz, love

As Staggerlee lit a cigarette she shot him in the balls
Blew the smoke off her revolver, had him dragged to city hall
Baio, Baio, see you hang him high
He shot my Billy dead and now he's got to die

Delia went a walking down on Singapore Street
A three-piece band on the corner played "Nearer, My God, to Thee"
but Delia whistled a different tune...what tune could it be?

The song that woman sung was Look out Staggerlee
The song that Delia sung was Look out Staggerlee
The song that woman sung was Look out Staggerlee
The song that Delia sung was Look out Staggerlee

"Stagger Lee"

Musical details: Recorded on

First performance: August 30, 1978, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. "Stagger Lee" appeared in the first set, between "Mama Tried" and "Looks Like Rain." The show also featured the first "I Need A Miracle" and "If I Had the World to Give." The song has had a fairly consistent place in the repertoire over the years, disappearing now and then for extended periods.

In Robert Hunter's Box of Rain, the lyric is entitled "Delia Delyon and Staggerlee."

Stagger Lee

There are a number of tunes entitled "Stagger Lee" which have been recorded over the years. They all derive from a series of tales and songs in African- American folklore.

See Tony Kullen's essay, available at Alex Allan's site: Stagger Lee: A Historical Look at the Urban Legend for a detailed look at the topic.

One serious attempt to ascertain the possible historical existence of Stacker Lee was made, in an article by Richard E. Buehler, "Stacker Lee: a Partial Investigation into the Historicity of a Negro Murder Ballad," published in the Keystone Folklore Quarterly in the Fall, 1967 issue (pp. 187-191.) Buehler identifies a Stacker Lee who was a Confederate officer and subsequently an upstanding member of the community, and who is unlikely to have been the model for the badman of legend. And while Buehler suggests several lines for further research, no one seems to have taken up the task--notably the possibility that the key to the historicity of the ballad may lie in the name "Billy Lyons," rather than in Stacker Lee. This historical Stacker Lee unearthed by Buehler was the member of the Lee family of steamboat owners, and he points out that

"Many of the Lee Line boats were named for members of the Lee family, and one of them was the Stacker Lee (hence the name of Miss Ferber's showboat [immortalized in her book, Show Boat]). This boat was commissioned in 1906 and went down in 1916." (p. 188)

Blair Jackson, in his magazine "Golden Road" said this about "Stagger Lee":

""Stagger Lee," who pops on the Shakedown album is a fabled character who some suggest dates back to the Civil War. Variously called "Stag-O-Lee," "Stack-O-Lee," and other names, the song is about a scoundrel who killed Billy Lyons because he stole Stag's Stetson hat. Stag-O-Lee was upset about the death, though--because he failed to shoot Billy right between the eyes. Songwriters over the years have elaborated on the story, bringing in the bad man's deals with the devil, etc. It's been recorded often, by everyone from Mississippi John Hurt (his 1928 version is one of the first on record) to Professor Longhair and Doc and Merle Watson."

The Digital Tradition folk song database has two versions of the song.

Here's a partial list of other "Stagger Lee"'s, in alphabetical order by performer:

lucky dice

Dice references are plentiful in Grateful Dead lyrics, being part of the overall gambling motif.

Stetson hat

The archetypal western hat. Patrick Bousquet's article, "The Hat of the West: John B. and his Stetson," tells the history of the hat, and of its creator, John B. Stetson. Stetson was born in 1830 to a "master hatmaker, Stephen Stetson, of Orange, New Jersey." He invented what is now thought of as the classic Stetson about 1850, "...a large hat with a broad brim for protection from the sun and rain, and it had a high crown." (p. 19) When he went into production with this hat, he christened it "Boss of the Plains."

Botkin has this story:

"The Magic Hat

You see, it happened like this: Stack was crazy about Stetson hats; specially them great big five gallon hats with dimples in the crown. And he had a whole row of em hangin on pegs and you could look at em along the wall of his rickety shanty on Market Street in St. Louis, where he lived with his woman, Stack o' Dollars, that I'm goin to tell you about later.

He had a dimpled and lemon colored yaller hat, and a black Sunday one with two white eyes to wear to funerals with his new brogans, and lots of other ones, all kinds and colors.

But his favorite one was an oxblood magic hat that folks claim he made from the raw hide of a man-eatin panther that the devil had skinned alive. And like I told you, how come Stack to have it was because he had sold his soul to old Scratch. 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 him 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." (p. 123)

gin fizz

5 oz gin
5 heaping teaspoons sugar
juice of a lemon
one egg
one tablespoon Cointreau
one teaspoon orange rind or one teaspoon orange flower water
Add 4 ice cubes--mix till they're gone
Add equal amount of milk and mix.
Serve in chilled glasses.

Recipe courtesy Roger Felton.

Nearer, My God, To Thee

The title of an old hymn (1859) by Sarah Adams and Lowell Mason, Famously played by the ship's band on the Titanic as the boat sank.
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee!
E'en tho' it be a cross
That raiseth me;
Still all my song shall be---
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee!

Tho' like the wanderer,
The sun goes down,
Darkness be over me,
My rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams
I'd be Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee!

There let my way appear,
Steps unto heaven;
All that Thou sendest me,
In mercy given;
Angels to beckon me
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee!

Then with my waking thoughts,
Bright with thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs,
Bethel I'll raise;
So by my woes[?] to be,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee!

And if on joyful wing,
Cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot,
Upward I fly;
Still all my song shall be---
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee!

First posted: 1996
Last revised: April 11, 2007