Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Outlaw Jesse James

This is another post in my series on cool old folk songs. Hit the label Folk below to see other posts in this category.
Frank and Jesse James
Jesse James, famous American West gunslinger and train robber, has been memorialized by American folk tales and folk music. The story of the James Gang has been told and retold by many musicians, in many different ways, much like the story of Stagger Lee.
I'll take a minute to share some U.S. history...

During the American Civil War, the frontier states, like Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas, were prime targets of guerrilla warfare waged between Confederate "bushwacker" guerrilla fighters, and abolitionist Jayhawkers loyal to the Union. Jesse James and his brother Frank were Confederate bushwackers. They fought for Drew Lobbs Army and the Quantrill Raiders in Kansas and Texas.

After the war, the brothers joined up with Cole Younger and several of his brothers to rob banks and trains. This of course, made them outlaws, and a target of the famous Pinkerton detective agency.  This gang is destroyed during a botched bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota.
The James Younger Gang
Afterward, the James brothers join up with Charley and Robert Ford to continue their outlaw lifestyle.  However, the Fords turn on the James brothers. In 1882, Bob Ford is paid off by the Missouri governor, Thomas Crittenden, to assassinate Jesse James, and shoots him in the back of the head.

Following the murder, the Ford brothers are arrested to be hanged for murder. Crittenden pardons them at the last minute. Frank surrendered to be tried five months later. He served a year in jail and was aquitted of all charges.

In music, Jesse James is heralded as a hero of the people, a Robin Hood-esque outlaw. Frank and Jesse are often portrayed as soldiers of fortune, and the Fords as traitors.

There have been many songs written and recorded about the James Gang. In fact, Joe Walsh was in a band before the Eagles called the James Gang. Frank and Jesse James by Warren Zevon, Jesus Christ and Jesse James by Christy Moore, Fighting Man by Timmy Brown, James and Cold Gun by Kate Bush, and Outlaw Jesse James by Cannonball are all good examples of music about the outlaw.  And, of course, who could forget the memorable Just Like Jesse James by Cher.
Bob Ford shooting Jesse James
The most famous Jesse James song, however, was written and recorded in 1924 by Bascom Lundsford. This particular song has been covered since by Pete Seeger, Van Morrison, the Pogues, Woody Guthrie, The Kingston Trio, Ry Cooder, and Bruce Springsteen. Titled simply Jesse James, the lyrics are below.

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 Mr. 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.

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