Jesse James (folk song)

Last updated

"Jesse James" is a 19th-century American folk song about the outlaw of the same name, first recorded by Bentley Ball in 1919 [1] and subsequently by many others, including Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Vernon Dalhart, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, The Pogues, The Ramblin' Riversiders, The Country Gentlemen, Willy DeVille, Van Morrison, Harry McClintock, Grandpa Jones, Bob Seger, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Carl Sandburg, Sons of the Pioneers, Johnny Cash, Liam Clancy, Mungo Jerry and Bruce Springsteen. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time. [2]



The lyrics are largely biographical containing a number of details from Jesse James' life, portraying him 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 song is the starting point of the Jesse James panel of a mural on American folk songs by Thomas Hart Benton. [3]

But that dirty little coward
That shot Mr. Howard
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave. [4] [5]

Robert Ford, who killed Jesse, was a James' gang member. Mr. Howard was the alias that James lived under in Saint Joseph, Missouri at the time of his killing.

The song was recorded in 1924 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford and subsequently by many artists, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Eddy Arnold, Jackson C. Frank, The Country Gentlemen, The Pogues, The Kingston Trio, Van Morrison, Bob Seger, Willy DeVille, Mungo Jerry and Bruce Springsteen. It is the most famous song about James. Part of the song is heard at the end of the 1939 movie, Jesse James . The song was used in a 1958 episode of the TV western series Lawman , in which the marshal tries to get Robert Ford (played by Martin Landau) out of town safely. Ry Cooder's arrangement of the song plays over the end credits of Walter Hill's 1980 movie The Long Riders and a portion of the song is performed on-screen by Nick Cave, who plays a strolling balladeer in a bar patronized by Robert Ford in the 2007 movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford .

Woody Guthrie also wrote the song Jesus Christ based on the same melody and lyrical structure. The song "Ballad of October 16" from the album Songs for John Doe by the Almanac Singers is based on the same melody and has lyrical similarities.

The folksinger Almeda Riddle, born Almeda James, was a first cousin twice removed of Frank and Jesse James. On a recording of the song she noted, "I'm sure you've read of Frank and Jesse James. Well, my father's grandfather and their father (Robert S. James) was brothers. I never was ashamed of the James boys was my cousins, but neither was I proud of it."

The composer of the song is unknown, but it is attributed in the lyrics of some versions to a to "Billy Gashade" or ""Billy LaShade", though no historical record exists for anyone under either name. [1] [6]

This song is popular in the bluegrass repertoire; it is usually played as an instrumental, most often in the key of B.


Although the lyrics and structure of the song vary among versions, the following arrangement is typical:

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, [now] they were brave,
Well that dirty little coward that shot Mr. [Mister] Howard,
He laid poor Jesse [Has laid Jesse James] in his grave.

NOTE: Another version of this verse (which I heard from my grandmother when I was a little girl) is:
Now Jesse had a wife, he loved her all his life,
Oh, so good and brave.
But the dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
Has 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.


A somewhat different version, alternately titled "I Wonder Where My Poor Old Jesse's Gone", is as follows:

Jesse James was a man that was knowed through all the land
For Jesse he was bold and bad and brave
But that dirty little coward that shot down Mr. Howard
Has went and laid poor Jesse in his grave

Oh I wonder where my poor old Jesse's gone
Oh I wonder where my poor old Jesse's gone
I will meet him in that land where I've never been before
And I wonder where my poor old Jesse's gone

Jesse and his brother, Frank, they robbed the Gallatin bank
And carried the money from the town
It was in that very place that they had a little race
And they shot Captain Sheets to the ground

It was on a Wednesday night and the moon was shining bright
They robbed the Glendale train
And the agent on his knees, delivered up the keys
To the outlaws, Frank and Jesse James

It was on a Friday night and the moon was shining bright
Bob Ford had been hiding in a cave
He had ate of Jesse's bread, he had slept in Jesse's bed
But he went and laid poor Jesse in his grave


Jesse James was alone a-straightening up his home
Stood on a chair to dust a picture frame
When Bob Ford fired the ball that pulled Jesse from the wall
And he went and laid poor Jesse in his grave

Jesse James has gone to rest with his hands upon his breast
There's many a man that never knowed his face
He was born one day in the county of Clay
And he came from a solitary race [7]

Related Research Articles

Frank James American outlaw, Confederate guerrilla, and train robber

Alexander Franklin James was a Confederate soldier and guerrilla; in the post-Civil War period, he was an outlaw. The older brother of outlaw Jesse James, Frank was also part of the James–Younger Gang.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">James–Younger Gang</span> Criminal organization

The James–Younger Gang was a notable 19th-century gang of American outlaws that revolved around Jesse James and his brother Frank James. The gang was based in the state of Missouri, the home of most of the members.

Zerelda Mimms

Zerelda Amanda Mimms James was the wife and first cousin of Jesse James.

<i>The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford</i> 2007 film by Andrew Dominik

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a 2007 American epic revisionist Western film written and directed by Andrew Dominik and starring Brad Pitt as Jesse James. Adapted from Ron Hansen's 1983 novel of the same title, the film dramatizes the relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford, focusing on the events that lead up to the titular killing.

Robert Ford (outlaw) Man who killed Jesse James (1862–1892)

Robert Newton Ford was an American outlaw best known for his assassination of Jesse James on April 3, 1882. He and his brother Charley, both members of the James–Younger Gang under James’s leadership, went on to perform paid re-enactments of the killing at publicity events. Ford would spend his later years operating multiple saloons and dance halls in the West.

John Frank Dalton was a possible centenarian who drew notice late in life by successively claiming to be two long-dead famous Western historical figures, lawman Frank Dalton and outlaw Jesse James.

Don "Red" Barry American actor (1912–1980)

Donald Barry de Acosta, also known as Red Barry and Milton Poimboeuf, was an American film and television actor. He was nicknamed "Red" after appearing as the first Red Ryder in the highly successful 1940 film Adventures of Red Ryder with Noah Beery Sr.; the character was played in later films by "Wild Bill" Elliott and Allan Lane. Barry went on to bigger budget films following Red Ryder, but none reached his previous level of success. He played Red Doyle in the 1964 Perry Mason episode 'The Case of the Simple Simon'.

Wood Hite 19th-century American outlaw

Robert Woodson "Wood" Hite was an outlaw and cousin of Frank and Jesse James. He was a member of the James-Younger gang, participating in a number of robberies and other crimes. He was shot dead by Robert Ford during a gunfight with Ford's friend Dick Liddil. The death of Hite precipitated the series of events that culminated in the killing of Jesse James by Ford.

Jesse James became a hero in folklore and dime novels before he was killed in 1882. A manifestation of this was the emergence of a wide body of music that celebrates or alludes to Jesse James.

Edward Capehart OKelley American outlaw (1857–1904)

Edward Capehart O'Kelley was an American killer who killed Robert Ford, who had killed the famous outlaw Jesse James to receive a bounty. He was the subject of a 1994 book by his (O'Kelley's) great-great-niece.

Edward T. Miller (outlaw)

Edward T. Miller was a Missouri born outlaw.

The 12th Satellite Awards, honoring the best in film and television of 2007, were given on December 16, 2007.

Charles Ford (outlaw) American outlaw

Charles Wilson "Charley" Ford was an outlaw, and member of the James Gang. He was the lesser known brother of Robert Ford, the killer of Jesse James. Charlie Ford was introduced to Jesse and Frank James by Wood Hite and he joined the gang.

<i>The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid</i> 1972 film

The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid is a 1972 American Western film about the James-Younger Gang distributed by Universal Pictures. It was written and directed by Philip Kaufman in a cinéma vérité style and starring Cliff Robertson. The film purports to recreate the James-Younger Gang's most infamous escapade, the September 7, 1876, robbery of "the biggest bank west of the Mississippi", in Northfield, Minnesota.

<i>The True Story of Jesse James</i> 1957 film by Nicholas Ray

The True Story of Jesse James is a 1957 American Western drama film adapted from Henry King's 1939 film Jesse James, which was only loosely based on James' life. It was directed by Nicholas Ray, with Robert Wagner portraying Jesse James and Jeffrey Hunter starring as Frank James. Filming took place during 1955. Originally titled The James Brothers in the United Kingdom, the film focused on the relationship between the two James brothers during the last 18 years of Jesse James' life.

Dick Liddil

James Andrew "Dick" Liddil was an American outlaw who was one of the last surviving members of the James-Younger Gang. His surname is often misspelled as Liddel, Liddell, or Liddle.

Jesse James American outlaw (1847–1882)

Jesse Woodson James was an American outlaw, bank and train robber, guerrilla and leader of the James–Younger Gang. Raised in the "Little Dixie" area of Western Missouri, James and his family maintained strong Southern sympathies. He and his brother Frank James joined pro-Confederate guerrillas known as "bushwhackers" operating in Missouri and Kansas during the American Civil War. As followers of William Quantrill and "Bloody Bill" Anderson, they were accused of committing atrocities against Union soldiers and civilian abolitionists, including the Centralia Massacre in 1864.

James Timberlake

James H. Timberlake was an American law enforcement officer, Civil War soldier, farmer and rancher who served as a deputy U.S. marshal for the Western District of Missouri. Timberlake is best known for being the chief enforcer and investigator against the James-Younger Gang, beginning in the 1870s, which culminated in the death of the outlaw Jesse James on April 3, 1882, at the hands of Robert Ford.

Jesse James (Clay Walker song) 2012 single by Clay Walker

"Jesse James" is a song recorded by American country music artist Clay Walker. It was released in September 2012 as the fourth single from his 2010 studio album, She Won't Be Lonely Long. The song was written by Ben Glover, Kyle Jacobs, and Joe Leathers. The song has also been performed by the group the Davisson Brothers Band and by Wyatt.

Cultural depictions of Jesse James Jesse James as depicted in media

Cultural depictions of Jesse James appear in various types of media, including literature, video games, comics, music, stage productions, films, television, and radio. James is variously described as an American outlaw, bank and train robber, guerrilla, and leader of the James–Younger Gang. After the American civil war, as members of various gangs of outlaws, Jesse and Frank James robbed banks, stagecoaches, and trains across the Midwest, gaining national fame and even sympathy despite their crimes. James became an iconic figure from the era, and his life has been dramatized and memorialized numerous times.


  1. 1 2 Polenberg, Richard (November 2015). Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee," "John Henry," and Other Traditional American Folk Songs . Cornell University Press. p.  118. ISBN   978-1501700026. jesse james song history.
  2. Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 19 October 2010.
  3. Annett Claudia Richter - Fiddles, Harmonicas, and Banjos: Thomas Hart Benton and His Role ... 2008 -- Page 218 "From the widely spread folk song "Jesse James," Benton selected two of the outlaw's most remembered actions: the robbery of a bank and of a train together with his gang. The story of Jesse James appeared in the St. Joseph, Missouri, ..."
  4. "Jesse James (trad.) (1800s)". Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  5. Settle, William A. (25 November 1977). Jesse James Was His Name: Or, Fact and Fiction Concerning the Careers of the Notorious James Brothers of Missouri . U of Nebraska Press. ISBN   9780803258600 . Retrieved 25 November 2017 via Internet Archive.
  6. "Jesse James, a.k.a. Ballad of Jesse James". International Lyrics Playground. 2007. Retrieved 2020-07-05.
  7. "Jesse James (I Wonder Where My Poor Old Jesse's Gone)". Archived from the original on 2006-08-18.