Jesse James in music

Jesse James in music

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. The most famous song about Jesse James is the folk song "Jesse James" recorded in 1924 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and subsequently by many artists, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Pogues, The Country Gentlemen, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen on his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.


Folk song

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".

"But that dirty little coward / That shot Mr. Howard / Has laid poor Jesse in his grave." [1][2]

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

The folk song "Jesse James" was recorded in 1924 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and subsequently by many artists, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Country Gentlemen, The Pogues, The Kingston Trio, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen on his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, and 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. A portion of the song is performed on-screen by Nick Cave, playing a strolling balladeer in a bar patronised by Robert Ford, in the 2007 movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.


Most common stanzas of many versions:

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.
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. And the race is on and on and he comes pride in the back seat.

Other appearances

  • Prefab Sprout's 1990 album, Jordan: The Comeback featured a song called "Jesse James Symphony", which segued into another named "Jesse James Bolero". (These songs are bracketed by a corresponding pair about Elvis Presley, to whom Jesse is implicitly compared.)
  • Warren Zevon, wrote and recorded a song called "Frank and Jesse James", and the song "Poor Poor Pitiful Me", which contains the lyric "I met a girl in West Hollywood, but I ain't namin' names/She really worked me over good/She was just like Jesse James", on his self-titled second album.
  • Rap singer Scarface released a song titled "Jesse James" on his seminal 1994 album The Diary
  • Irish folk-punk band The Pogues have a track (a version of the above mentioned traditional song[clarification needed]) named "Jesse James", about him on their album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash.
  • Clubland recorded a ska tune entitled "Jesse James", in which Jesse is referred to as "the rudest rude boy..."
  • Terry Allen's song "New Delhi Freight Train" begins "Some people think that I must be crazy / But my real name is just Jesse James", and is narrated by the outlaw. Originally recorded on Allen's 1979 album Lubbock (On Everything), the song has been covered by Rick Nelson, and by Little Feat.
  • In the 1970s Mary McCaslin, noted American folk singer, recorded "The Band of Jesse James," written by her performing partner and husband Jim Ringer. "He's wild as a half grown child at a grown-up party Like a mustang dang near kicking down the stall He's the kind to pay no mind to what he started He don't care, `cause he'll be somewhere else by fall A wanted man in Reno, he moves on to Cour d'Alene You know that man could've rode with the band of Jesse James."

Memorial songs

Mentions in group names

  • In the 1970s there was a musical group named The James Gang
    • From 1968 to 1971 rock guitarist Joe Walsh, who later joined the Eagles, played in the band whose hits included "Funk #49" and "Walk Away."

Mentions in lyrics

  • George Strait states "Sometimes I feel like Jesse James / Still trying to make a name" in the chorus of his 2008 hit "Troubadour (song)".
  • Joe Scruggs mentions in his rendition of Aunt Lucy that she had a baby named Jesse James
  • Toby Keith states "Running wild through the hills chasing Jesse James Ending up on the brink of danger" in Should've been a Cowboy.
  • Swollen Members mentioned Mr. James in their song, "Sinister", when Mad Child says "Hang the hang man. Jesse James gang"
  • Synthpop band The Magnetic Fields mentions Jesse in the first verse of "Two Characters in Search of a Country Song," from their 1994 album The Charm of the Highway Strip ("You were Jesse James, I was William Tell/ You were Daniel Webster, I was the Devil Himself").
  • The Sugarhill Gang reference Jesse James in their song, "Apache" with the lyrics "My tribe went down in the Hall of Fame/'Cause I'm the one who shot Jesse James".
  • A little known Jerry Reed song called "The Legend", found on the Smokey and the Bandit soundtrack, opens with the lyric "You heard about the Legend of Jesse James and John Henry just to mention some names/But there's a truck drivin' legend in the south today/a man called Bandit from Atlanta GA."
  • Everlast, in their 1998 song "Ends," from the album Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, contains the lyrics "And all of a sudden he's like Jesse James, trying to stick up kids for their watches and chains."
  • Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris, in the song "Belle Starr" from their 2006 album All the Roadrunning, have the line "I can be your Belle Starr and you can be my Jesse James" in the chorus.
  • "A Train Robbery" by Paul Kennerley, (with the chorus, "We will burn this train to cinders, so throw that money on down,") appears on the 1999 re-release of The Legend of Jesse James. Levon Helm included a new version on his 2007 album Dirt Farmer.
  • Bob Dylan, in his song "Outlaw Blues" from his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, 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."
  • The Hal Bynum/Dave Kirby song (made popular by Cash and Waylon Jennings) "There Ain't No Good Chain Gang" declares "I ain't cut out to be no Jesse James."
  • GWAR mentions Jesse James in their song "Bad Bad Men".
  • The Lead Belly song, "Out on the Western Plains", contains the lyrics "When me and a bunch of cowboys run into Jesse James / The bullets was a-fallin' just like a shower rain". Rory Gallagher sings a version of the song on his 1975 album Against the Grain.
  • Reggie and the Full Effect mention James in the song "G" on their album Last Stop: Crappy Town. During a verse in which the singer's psychologist raves about a daylight bank robbery, he responds by saying, "He doesn't even realize that Jesse James did that shit in motherfucking Liberty."
  • Cher had a hit with her song "Just Like Jesse James". "Tonight you're gonna go down in flames Just like Jesse James/I'm gonna shoot you down Jesse James"
  • Nazareth, from the album [[Loud 'n' Proud] in the song "Not Faking It" "Jesse James was a born killer/Me, I'm just a rock'n'roll singer"
  • Laurel Aitken recorded "Jesse James" in 1969. "Jesse James rise again/Don't call me Billy the Kidd, call me James, Jesse James"
  • Hank Williams, Jr.'s 1983 album Strong Stuff has the song "Whole Lot of Hank," part of which indulges outlaw mythology with the lyrics, "Frank and Jesse James knowed how to rob them trains / They always took it from the rich and gave it to the poor, they might have had a bad name but they sure had a heart of gold." Also Hank's 1979 album Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound has the song "Old Nashville Cowboys" which features the words "Where are the cowboys and the home on the range / Does anyone know they've killed Jesse James".
  • Johnny "Guitar" Watson wrote a song called "Gangster of Love". "Well, there's Frank James and Jesse James/Billy the Kid and all the rest"
  • Brazzaville have a song on 2006 album East L.A. Breeze called "Jesse James". "When he was runnin’ from the cops/He said ... I don’t wanna live your life/I wanna die like Jesse James"
  • Snap! in its hit "The Power" sings "I'm the lyrical Jesse James". "maniac brainiac winning the game/i'm the lyrical jesse james"
  • John Lee Hooker wrote a song titled "I'm Bad like Jesse James". "'Cause I'm mad, I'm bad, like Jesse James"

Michael Martin Murphy recorded "Frank James' Farewell" with the lyric "Tonight I can hear Jesse calling, and tonight we will ride once again".

  • Ry Cooder did a cover of the classic version of "Dirty Little Coward Who Shot Mr. Howard" using slide guitar on one of his early albums.
  • Lil' Wayne in the song Right Above It ft Drake "And you niggas know I rep my game like Jesse James"

Robert Ford in Music

Robert Newton "Bob" Ford who gained fame by killing the Jesse James in 1882, also depicted in the songs.

  • In the Bob Dylan song "Outlaw Blues", Dylan alludes to Ford with the lines, "I ain't gonna hang no picture/Ain't gonna hang no picture frame/Well I might look like a Robert Ford/But I feel just like a Jesse James."
  • In 1975 Elton John had a minor hit with the song "I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)" refers to a betrayal in a romantic relationship that is metaphorically likened to Jesse James' assassin.
  • In the Warren Zevon song "Frank and Jesse James," Ford is mentioned in the lyrics "Robert Ford, a gunman/In exchange for his parole/Took the life of James the outlaw/Which he snuck up on and stole."


External links

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