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The Ballad of Jesse James

Oh how we boys — folkies of the 1970s — loved to sing the ballad of Jesse James.

Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man
He robbed the Denver train
But that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
Has laid Jesse James in his grave

The ballad of Jesse James was just perfect: it was Americana, it had a Robin-Hood-style outlaw hero, and it had a rousing chorus ideally suited for a trio of stripling folksingers gathered around a microphone trying to sound manly. And it was mysterious: it was a true folksong, nobody knew where it came from — just sing it!

Now I am older, and not necessarily wiser, but I do have a better idea where this iconic American outlaw ballad came from. Nebraska. I have pretty good evidence, as well as a feeling in my bones, that the ballad of Jesse James originated in Nebraska. It is a song of the prairies.

I now hold the earliest known text of the ballad of Jesse James, published in the Daily Nebraska Press of Nebraska City on 15 September 1886, four years after Robert Ford came along like a thief in the night and laid poor Jesse in his grave.

Not to be overly possessive, but unless evidence surfaces to the contrary, I am the discoverer of this text. I know that a few weeks ago someone published the text, unattributed and in somewhat garbled transcription, via an online folksingers’ forum, but that was a month after I cited and sang it for my Willow Creek Folk School. This sort of thing makes me glad that when I broach such discoveries in my livestream, Dr. Kelley is also preserving them with a high-definition, digitally-dated recording.

The 1886 text has no certain author attribution, but carries the legend, “By the Two Orphans.” This is a literary fiction. The author is presuming to speak for the two children left without a father by the killer. The final stanza (eighth of eight stanzas, plus chorus) says, “This song was made by old Bob Slade,” a name that does not appear in any other known text. I am unable to locate a historic Bob Slade or Robert Slade to finger as author.

I suspect he was from Nebraska. There are references in the text that seem to indicate a belief — erroneous, but common in Nebraska at the time — that the James boys were party to the greatest train robbery in US history, at Big Springs Station in western Nebraska in 1877. More important in consideration of the ballad’s place of origin is the relationship between Jesse James and people in southeastern Dakota Territory and, more so, in Nebraska, along the west bank of the Missouri River, upstream from the earlier haunts of the James gang. Multiple contemporary sources say that Jesse James had identified property and was in the process of moving to Nebraska before he was shot.

The 1886 version of “Jesse James” I have in hand — I do not think it is the original text. There are anomalies in it. The first stanza, for instance, does not rhyme, and it does not contain the usual assertion that Jesse “robbed from the rich and gave to the poor,” a typical outlaw trope. My sense is that whoever brought this ballad to the editor of the Daily Nebraska Press for publication captured it from oral transmission and either took down a text that had degraded somewhat in circulation or himself, as transcriber, got a little mixed up.

I am singing it, anyway. Because,

Jesse James had a wife to mourn for his life
And children that were brave
But that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
Has laid Jesse in his grave

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