The Song of Jesse
Jesse James passed into folk song almost immediately. The Ballad of Jesse James, supposedly written by a minstrel named or called Billy Gashade, was current with amazing speed. A rather good 1997 novel by Loren E Estleman, Billy Gashade, tells the story of Billy. Most versions of this ballad make Jesse out to be a real hero, and they were very dismissive of “the coward Robert Ford who laid poor Jesse in his grave.”
Rapidly the ballad became a staple of bars and shows and parlors. Several Jesse movies show the ballad singers plying their trade. Think of the blind ballad-singer at the end of the 1957 film (he managed to write it in full approximately 20 seconds after Jesse was shot) or Nick Cave in the 2007 one. Nick had the misfortune to find Bob Ford among the clientele at the bar in the saloon where he sang it.
Like all true folk songs, countless musicians have performed it since, often adapting the words and tune slightly, and they’ve recorded it too. As Andrew Patrick Nelson points out on the How the West Was Cast podcast, some of the altered words were less complimentary of James.
Other songsters have written their own offerings. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, lecturer on and performer of Appalachian folk music, recorded Jesse James in 1924 and Woody Guthrie too, which you can get on iTunes, as well as Pete Seeger’s version. The Ballad or other songs about Jesse were performed and recorded by a whole variety of artists such as Van Morrison. He did a nice version live in Belfast (external link) with British skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan and jazzman Chris Barber. You can try The Pogues, Willy De Ville and the Boss too – Bruce Springsteen (also external) singing it live in Dublin and on his 2006 album We Shall Overcome. Ry Cooder did a lovely instrumental version for the credits of The Long Riders (it’s the one I have on my iPod). There are many, many versions available. Take your pick.
Of course all these songs make him out to be a Robin Hood and/or a dime-novel shootist. They have no interest in true or factual history. Why should they?
A common version of the lyrics will give you the idea:
Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man
He robbed the Glendale train
He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,
He’d a hand and a heart and a brain
Well it was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward
I wonder how he feels
For he ate of Jesse’s bread and he slept in Jesse’s bed
And he laid poor Jesse in his grave
Well Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life
Three children, they were brave
Well that dirty little coward that shot Mister Howard
He laid poor Jesse in his grave
Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor
He’d never rob a mother or a child
There never was a man with the law in his hand
That could take Jesse James alive
Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor,
He’d never see a man suffer pain
And with his brother Frank he robbed the Chicago bank
And stopped the Glendale train
It was on a Saturday night and the moon was shining bright
They robbed the Glendale train
And people they did say o’er many miles away
It was those outlaws, they’re Frank and Jesse James
Now the people held their breath when they heard of Jesse’s death
And wondered how he ever came to fall
Robert Ford, it was a fact, he shot Jesse in the back
While Jesse hung a picture on the wall
Now Jesse went to rest with his hand on his breast
The devil will be upon his knee
He was born one day in the County Clay
And he came from a solitary race
Jesse James continues to influence song. Rap singer Scarface has a song titled Jesse James (apparently). Prefab Sprout (I remember them) had a Jesse James Symphony (the mind boggles). Clubland did a ska Jesse. Terry Allen recorded a song which begins “Some people think that I must be crazy / But my real name is just Jesse James”, and is narrated by the outlaw.
There was a concept album The Legend of Jesse James in 1980, with various artists singing songs by English songwriter Paul Kennerley. Johnny Cash was Jesse and Rosanne was his mother (“Ma Samuel”). There’s Emmylou Harris as Zee, Charlie Daniels as Cole Younger and Donivan Cowart as Bob Ford, among others.
In his song Outlaw Blues Bob Dylan defends his decision to go electric with the line “Ain’t gonna hang no picture, ain’t gonna hang no picture frame/Well, I might look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like a Jesse James.”
Singer after singer has performed songs about Jesse James or referring to him in some way (there’s a nigh-on exhaustive list on Wikipedia if you want to trawl through them all). In the 1970s there was even a band called The James Gang.
Given the place of Jesse James in American folk mythology, it’s not surprising that he has been so widely sung about. Still, singers do seem to have a particularly soft spot for him. There are far more songs about Jesse than there are about other famous outlaws like Billy the Kid or Butch Cassidy, for instance, or indeed about Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd or any number of ‘Robin Hood’ bandits since.
I guess that’s the power of the Western for you.
Well, it’s time to turn to other subjects and lay poor Jesse in his grave. Thanks for reading!