Since the early 20th century, the curious story story of Stag Lee has been woven into music, poetry in art. But local Nashville composer has taken it to the next level, giving the tale an operatic treatment.
In 1959, Lloyd Price’s song about the legend of Stagger Lee reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but music about the 19th century criminal dates all the way back to 1911. Still, the details about the real-life man behind the myth are a little bit fuzzy.
“There’s kind of a mystique about him,” says Nashville composer and TSU professor Darryl Glenn Nettles, who first encountered the story of Lee in the work of Langston Hughes. “He was sort of a thuggish, roguish character who was very political in the African-American community, and therefore he dealt with perhaps drugs or alcohol and women, and also had some type of political power to keep various people in office.”
Like many artists before him, Nettles was captivated by the story of Stag Lee. But it wasn’t necessarily Lee’s political sway or reputation as a brothel owner that intrigued Nettles the most.
“It was the killing—the murder—that really struck me about the guy,” he says.
As the story goes, Stag Lee was with an acquaintance, Billy Lyons, at a St. Louis saloon in 1895 when the pair got into an argument. There may have been gambling involved, and both men were reportedly drunk. And when Lyons grabbed Lee’s Stetson hat, Lee responded by shooting and killing Lyons.
It didn’t take long for the murder to become the stuff of legends.
“He took on this mystique of being so vile, so unafraid of death and hell, that they started putting together these narratives about him in poetic style in African-American folklore,” explains Nettles.
For the composer, the drama was all very operatic. So he wrote one.
In the spirit of folklore, Nettles took his own liberties with the real story in his opera, which he titled
The Fall of Stag Lee. He moved the story from the late 19th century to the 1920s in order to take advantage of all the musical materials of the Jazz Age.
But Nettles admits that his sources of musical inspiration for the opera span a wide range.
“I wanted to pay homage to the influences that I had. So you’ll hear in the opera there are fugues which sound a little like Bach. At the end it sounds a little like Haydn and Mendelssohn. There are other scenes that sound like Count Basie and George Gershwin.”
Highlights from The Fall of Stag Lee, performed by Buffalo Opera Unlimited.
Nettles’s favorite musical moment? A love duet between Stag Lee and his girlfriend, who’s come to visit him in prison. “We see the human side of Stag Lee for a moment… for a moment. Because while he’s with her, he does show signs of fear. He’s not quite a tough as he thought.”
But that humanity disappears all too soon as Stag Lee, in true operatic fashion, begins to lose his mind in prison and his haunted on stage by literal demons. Hissing dancers slither onto a smoky stage to torment Lee as Nettles’s music grows increasingly dissonant. Lee, never one to repent, goes out in a defiant, hellish glory.
Buffalo Opera Unlimited gave the world premiere of The Fall of Stag Lee in 2016, and Nettles is currently at work on a chamber arrangment of the opera. He hopes that a local premiere will soon allow Nashville audiences to experience the folkloric bad man who was Stag Lee.