JESSE JAMES (trad./WOODY GUTHRIE) (1930s)

© Stormking Music, Inc., 1966


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Woody Guthrie's rewriting of the traditional ballad, most likely (cf. stanzas 3 & 4) inspired by Henry King's 1939 movie starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda.1
Woody also used the tune of the ballad for his own "Jesus Christ" (1940s).

Manfred Helfert


1WOODY GUTHRIE:

Jesse James is a good picture --
'Course I have to wait till it gits down to the dime shows, but it's a good picture anyhow --
(After all, I reckon a dime is worth 40c to me... they must be awful scarce. I see where the Finance outfits are charging four bits for a dime.)
The Railroad Racketeers hired Hoodlums & Thugs to beat and cheat the farmers out of their farms -- and make em sell em for $1 an acre.
Frank & Jesse robbed the train to get even. They robbed it so often that the engineer was disappointed on days they coodent get there.
The Railroad President offered $25.00 for one of Jesse's own men to shoot him in the back. Robert Ford, a dirty coward, done the job...
Jesse's Tombstone read: Here Lies Jesse James, shot down by a dirty coward whose name is not worthy to appear here... No wonder folks likes to hear songs about the Outlaws -- they're wrong allright, but not as 1/2 as dirty and sneakin' as some of our so-called "higher-ups"...
Woody Guthrie, "Woody Sez" column in "People's World," San Francisco, CA, c. 1939-'40; reprinted in Marjorie Guthrie et al (eds.), Woody Sez, New York, NY, 1975, p. 134.


Lyrics as reprinted in Irwin Silber, Songs of the Great American West, New York, NY, 1967, p. 256


Jesse James and his boys rode that Dodge City Trail,
Held up the midnight Southern mail,
And there never was a man with the law in his hand
That could keep Jesse James in a jail.

It was Frank and Jesse James that killed many a man,
But they never was outlaws at heart;
I wrote this song to tell you how it come
That Frank and Jesse James got their start.

They was living on a farm in the old Missouri hills,
With a silver-haired mother and a home;
Now the railroad bullies come to chase them off their land,
But they found that Frank and Jesse wouldn't run.

Then a railroad scab, he went and got a bomb,
And he throwed it at the door --
And it killed Mrs. James a-sleeping in her bed,
So Jesse grabbed a big forty-four.

Yes, Frank and Jesse James was men that was game
To stop that high-rolling train --
And to shoot down the rat that killed Mrs. James,
They was Two-Gun Frank and Jesse James.
Now a bastard and coward called little Robert Ford,
He claimed he was Frank and Jesse's friend,
Made love to Jesse's wife and he took Jesse's life,
And he laid poor Jesse in his grave.

The people were surprised when Jesse lost his life,
Wondered how he ever came to fall,
Robert Ford, it's a fact, shot Jesse in the back,
While Jesse hung a picture on the wall.

They dug Jesse's grave and a stone they raised,
It says, "Jesse James lies here --
Was killed by a man, a bastard and a coward,
Whose name ain't worthy to appear."


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