Jesse James

Jesse James was born on September 5, 1847 near Kansas City, Missouri. When the Civil War broke out, Missouri never joined the Confederacy, although it had strong southern sympathy with 75% of its population coming from southern and border states. Jesse’s older brother, Frank, joined a band of pro-Confederate guerillas known as the “bushwhackers” who battled Union forces in Missouri and Kansas. He may have been involved with Quantrill’s Raiders who committed atrocities against Union soldiers and abolitionists. In May, 1863 a group of Union militia raided Jesse’s family ranch, tortured his step-father and reportedly lashed young Jesse. The following year, near the end of the war, Jesse and Frank joined a bushwhacker group led by “Bloody Bill” Anderson.

After the war, the James brothers turned to an outlaw’s life, robbing banks, stagecoaches, and trains across the Midwest, forming their own gang in 1866. Their exploits gained national notoriety, portrayed in a manner that often invoked sympathy.  But authorities became increasingly determined to bring their crime spree to an end. 

After his death, many versions of a song glorifying Jesse James appeared. One version was recorded in 1924, with many following in the ’50s “folk music revival” and following years. I arranged my version into three sections, each with two verses followed by a chorus.

In the first section, I introduce the “legendary” Jesse James. Although that Jesse James is portrayed as a Robin Hood, robbing from the rich Union-backed banks to help poor farmers, there is no evidence that he ever gave any of his loot to anyone but his gang members. In this section, one statement is true. No lawman, including the equally legendary Pinkertons, were ever able to arrest him. 

In the second section, I describe two specific crimes that the James brothers were involved with. First, on December 7, 1869, Jesse and Frank robbed the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri. During this crime, Jesse shot the cashier Captain John Sheets, mistakenly believing he was Samuel P. Cox, the militia officer that shot his former commander “Bloody Bill” Anderson in revenge. For the other notorious crime verse, Jesse robbed a train near Glendale (now part of Independence), Missouri on October 8, 1879. This date has been mistakenly referred to as “a Saturday night” in most other versions of this song. A check of a perpetual calendar shows this was actually a Wednesday, which is how I relate it.

The third section tells of Jesse’s death. Although he hadn’t completely retired from crime, Jesse settled with his wife and two children in a small home in St. Joseph, Missouri under the alias Thomas Howard. His gang had diminished to two trusted brothers, Charley and Robert Ford. With added pressure for the capture of Frank and Jesse from the governor, Jesse asked the Ford brothers to move in with him and his family. Charley had participated with Jesse in previous crimes, but Robert was a new recruit to the gang. Governor Thomas Crittenden had made capture of the James brothers a campaign promise, and high priority once in office. Bob Ford had secret negotiations with the governor. On April 3, 1882, the Fords and Jameses went into the living room after breakfast. James laid his revolvers on the sofa and got up on a chair to straighten (or dust) a picture above the mantle. Bob Ford drew his gun and shot Jesse in the back of the head. Although Bob Ford was immediately arrested for murder, Governor Crittenden pardoned him the same day.

One version of this song that I found included a verse that didn’t exactly fit the verse/chorus scheme. I decided to tag that verse to the end, sung as the mourning widow by my friend Laura (Aho Parsons) Swartz.

I hope this background will help you appreciate the story told by my version of this song.

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