Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

The Ballade of Jesse James

Minstrel Billy Gashade wrote this song immediately after Jesse James' death. An overnight hit, its lyrics ran in major newspapers nationwide and the tune became a standard in vaudevilles and saloons. In the 1930s, songwriter Woody Guthrie rewrote the lyrics to promote the 20th Century-Fox movie, Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power (as Jesse) and Henry Fonda (as Frank). The song and movie re-popularized the legend of the outlaw for a new generation.

These are Grashade's original lyrics, filled with the melodramatic tone and verbosity of the day:

* * * * *

Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man,
He robbed the Glendale train;
But that dirty little coward that shot Mister Howard
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.


Poor Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life,
Three children they were brave,
But that dirty little coward that shot Mister Howard
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.

It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how does he feel?
For he ate of Jesse's bread and he slept in Jesse's bed,
Then laid poor Jesse in his grave.

It was his brother Frank who robbed the Gallatin bank
And carried the money from the town;
It was in this little place that they had a little race,
For they shot Captain Sheets to the ground.

It was on a Wednesday night, the moon was shining bright
When they robbed the Glendale train;
The people they did say, for many miles away,
It was robbed by Frank and Jesse James.

He robbed from the rich and was a friend to the poor;
He had a heart and a hand and a brain.
With his brother Frank, he robbed the Northfield bank
And stopped the Glendale train.

It was on a Saturday night, Jesse was at home,
Talking to his family brave;
Robert Ford came along like a thief in the night
And laid poor Jesse in his grave.

The people held their breath when they heard of Jesse's death
And wondered how he ever came to die.
It was one of the gang called little Robert Ford
Who shot poor Jesse on the sly.

Jesse went to his rest with his hand on his breast,
The devil will be upon his face.
He was born one day in the county of Clay
And came from a solitary race.

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