Jesse James (2:58)

Cover of Rum Sodomy & the Lash

From Rum Sodomy & the Lash and 6 other releases

Jesse James became a hero in folklore even before he died in 1882. A significant manifestation of this development was the emergence of a wide body of music that celebrates or simply alludes to Jesse James.

The most of all of the famous song about Jesse James is the popular American folk song “Jesse James” recorded in 1924 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and subsequently by many artists, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Pogues, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen on his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The song contains the lyric “But that dirty little coward / That shot Mr. Howard / Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.”[1] The lyrics of the song include a claim of authorship by Billy Gashade.

The song is pro-James, as many, especially Confederates, were at the time. The song portrays James much in the way he was portrayed in Kansas City Times by editor John Newman Edwards, as an American version of Robin Hood, though there is no evidence to indicate that he actually “stole from the rich and gave to the poor”. The lyrics are however largely biographical and contain a great number of details from Jesse James’ life.

The killer of James mentioned in the lyrics, Robert Ford, was James’ co-gang member, normally called Bob Ford, who lived with his brother, Charley Ford, in James’ house towards his death, as James had grown severely paranoid and wanted them there for his protection. He was right to be paranoid, though, as the Fords had conspired with local law enforcement to bring in James.

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