Album's version

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 now 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

Poor Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life
Three children now they were brave
Well that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
He laid poor Jesse in his grave

Now 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 when alive

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, thery're Frank and Jesse James

Well Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life
Three children now they were brave
Well that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
He laid poor Jesse in his grave

Now the people held their breath when they heard of Jesse's death
They wondered how he'd ever come 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 upon his knee
He was born one day in the County Clay
And he came from a solitary race

Well Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life
Three children now they were brave
Well that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
He laid poor Jesse in his grave

Come on boys!

Bruce Springsteen recorded this traditional song with The Seeger Sessions Band on 02 Nov 1997 during the first of the 3 "Seeger Sessions". The song is included on Bruce's 2006 cover album, We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions.

The Seeger Sessions consist of three recording sessions (a 2-days session on 01 and 02 Nov 1997, a 1-day session in Dec 2005, and a 1-day session in Jan 2006), during which all the album's songs were cut live in the living room of Bruce's New Jersey farmhouse. The songs were not rehearsed and all arrangements were conducted as Bruce and the band played.

The above lyrics refer to Bruce's version from the We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions album.

This song was reported to be rehearsed for the Seeger Sessions tour by Bruce Springsteen with his Seeger Sessions Band on 13, 20, and 21 Mar 2006 at the Paramount Theater, Asbury Park, NJ, and 12 Apr 2006 at the Convention Hall, Asbury Park, NJ. Some comments from the people who listened to the rehearsals:

  • "Lots of violin and fast paced, then lots of different solos." [12 Apr]

Played during the first 3 of the 4 public rehearsal shows for The Seeger Sessions tour -- 20, 24, and 25 Apr 2006 at the Convention Hall, Asbury Park, NJ.

The song was also played on 30 Apr 2006 at New Orleans Fair Grounds, New Orleans, LA, when Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band closed the first weekend of the New Orelans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

This song was recorded by Pete Seeger with Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Ed McCurdy, and released in 1957 on American Ballads. It is also available on other Pete Seeger releases, including:

  • A Link In The Chain (1996 - Columbia/Legacy C2K 64772A)
  • American Favorite Ballads Vol. 2 (2003 - Smithsonian/Folkways SFW CD).

This traditional song was written in 1882 by a minstrel named Billy Gashade. Earl Robinson writes in Irwin Silber, Songs of the Great American West, New York, NY, 1967, pp. 252-253:

In the backwash of the Civil War, the western plains provided a stage for a breed of men who had learned to live by the gun. For many, like Frank and Jesse James, their training ground was that savage band of looters and marauders who traveled under the Confederate flag and went by the name of "Quantrill's Raiders."

When the war was over, Frank and Jesse James went into business for themselves. For fifteen years, the notorious James brothers reigned as the scourge of Kansas and Missouri. Jesse James, the younger of the two, became the colorful mastermind and daring desperado.

"He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor," they sang in later years, and the folklore was based on fact. To the hard-pressed plains farmers of the 1870's, Jesse James indeed may have appeared as the agent of destiny's vengeance. The outlaw's victims were usually those twin traducers of the farmers' labor and land -- the railroads and the banks.

In April of 1882, Jesse James was murdered, shot in the back of the head, unarmed, by Robert Ford, a man he trusted as a friend. With his death, the legend was complete. All that was needed in order to enshrine the legend permanently was a ballad. Within a short time after Jesse's death, an otherwise unknown minstrel by the name of Billy Gashade created the ballad which has come to be Jesse James' lasting epitaph.

With the passing years, the ballad became known throughout the country. Cowboys, lumberjacks, and wandering troupers sang the song. The descendants of the plains farmers in the dust bowls of Kansas and Oklahoma in the 1930's still sang the old song of the daring outlaw whose six-shooter leveled class and caste with consummate urgency. One of these is Woody Guthrie. He rewrote the old song to fit the bitter mood of the depression years.

In later years, Guthrie completed the saga by retelling the story of Jesus to the Jesse James tune, under the title "Jesus Christ". It shares the same melody and lyrical structure with the original "Jesse James". In his version, Guthrie observes the disparity between how the rich and the poor people lived in New York City, and sings about what might happen if Jesus "was to walk into New York City and preach like he use to." U2 covered Guthrie's version in 1988, what made it even more popular than the original "Jesse James".

Alternate titles include: "Jessie James", "Poor Jesse James", "Saga Of Jesse James", "The Ballad Of Jesse James", "Jesus Christ" (rewritten lyrics by Woody Guthrie). Check out Dave Marsh's liner notes below for more details.

Note that this cover is totally different from the Springsteen-penned home demo JESSE JAMES.

Dave Marsh's liner notes about JESSE JAMES:

An historical ballad written by minstrel Billy Gashade immediately after Robert Ford shot the famous outlaw Jesse James to earn a reward in April 1882. Not to be confused with the 1939 Woody Guthrie song, which is different in both melody and lyrics. (Woody did swipe the original tune and structure of this "Jesse James" for his song, "Jesus Christ.")

Jesse James and his brother Frank did prey upon the banks and railroads despised by poor farmers in Missouri and Kansas, but they were hardly the noblemen portrayed in the lyric. The James brothers terrorized abolitionist farmers in Kansas before the Civil War. During the war, they belonged to the Confederate guerilla band, Quantrill's Raiders, a notoriously bloodthirsty outfit which mostly preyed upon local Union sympathizers and once shot 22 unarmed Union soldiers debarking from a train for leave.

After the war, the James brothers and Cole Younger and his brothers specialized in bank robberies and murders, which ranged from Kentucky to Iowa, Minnesota to Texas. James was seized upon as a symbol by anti-Reconstruction newspapers, who portrayed him as a heroic Confederate veteran treated unjustly after Appomattox. James embellished this image by writing self-exculpating letters to the newspapers. The image was further embellished by the theatricality of some of the gang's early exploits, including robbing a fair in Kansas and staging some of the heists in front of large crowds.

The James-Young gang did limit itself to looting the express cars of the trains his gang held up and leaving passengers alone. Jesse's populist image also derived from being pursued by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which was most infamous for its lethal union-busting tactics.

Robert Ford shot Jesse to earn a reward of $10,000 put up by the Missouri governor. Ford received part of the reward money (legend says only $25), and, even after he'd pled guilty and was sentenced to hang, the governor pardoned him. Ford died in 1892, when another outlaw, Edward O'Kelly, seeking to avenge Jesse's death, shot him. A sympathetic judge and jury gave O'Kelly only two years.

Before long, even Theodore Roosevelt began referring to Jesse James as "American's Robin Hood." Rumors circulated that Jesse had really survived the shooting, and these remained so persistent that in 1995, his body was exhumed and its DNA tested. The test made it 99.7% sure that Robert Ford had indeed shot Jesse James.

James does find immortality in popular culture. There have been dozens of movies and several other songs written about him. But it is this ballad that remains famous. Leadbelly probably made the most famous recording of it, but it has been recorded by many others, including the Kingston Trio, Country Joe McDonald, the New Lost City Ramblers, Grandpa Jones, Ry Cooder, Burl Ives, the Osborne Brothers and Eddy Arnold. Pete Seeger's version can be found on A Link in the Chain and several other collections.