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. There wasn't much point to stealing from the poor. Not unless you could work out a system the way the landlords did. And Jesse undoubtedly gave to the poor, and won loyalty, safety and shelter in times of need.
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.... With Jesse's death (shot in the back of the head, unarmed, by a man he trusted as a friend), 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 1930s still sang the old song of the daring outlaw whose six-shooter leveled class and caste with consummate urgency. One of these, Woody Guthrie, ... rewrote the old song to fit the bitter mood of the depression years.... In later years, Woody completed the saga by retelling the story of Jesus to the Jesse James tune....
Earl Robinson, in Irwin Silber, Songs of the Great American West, New York, NY, 1967, pp. 252-253.
Soon after the killing of James a ten-foot poem, set to music, came out and was sung on the streets of Springfield quite frequently.... An old blind woman used to stand in front of the court house... and sing it by the hour; mourners would drop coins into her tin can....
Robert L. Kennedy, Missouri Leader, Springfield, MO, Oct 18, 1933.
Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man,
He robbed the Danville train,
He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,
He'd a hand and a heart and a brain.
Poor Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life,
Three children, they were brave;
But the dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
Has laid Jesse James in his grave.
It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how he does feel,
For he ate of Jesse's bread and he slept in Jesse's bed,
Then he laid poor Jesse in his grave.
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 Wednesday night and the moon was shining bright,
They robbed the Glendale train,
And the people they did say for many miles away,
It was robbed by Frank and Jesse James.
lt was his brother Frank that robbed the Gallatin bank,
And carried the money from the town;
lt was in this very place that they had a little race,
For they shot Captain Sheets to the ground.
They went to the crossing not very far from there,
And there they did the same;
With the agent on his knees, he delivered up the keys
To the outlaws, Frank and Jesse James.
It was on Saturday night and Jesse was at home
Talking with 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,
He shot poor Jesse on the sly.
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 of Clay,
And he came from a solitary race.
This song was made by Billy Gashade
As soon as the news did arrive;
He said there was no man with the law in his hand
Who could take Jesse James when alive.