Turning Jesse James in to Jesus Christ
Jesse James was a bank robber and cold-blooded murderer, martyrized and turned in to an American Robin Hood in the song Billy Gashade wrote shortly after James' death. To read Gashade's lyrics, one could be excused for thinking James a modern savior to the people, with the "coward" Robert Ford in the role of Judas.
In 1940 Woody Guthrie turned Gashade's original song around. Observing the disparity between how the rich and the poor people lived in New York City, he wondered what might happen if Jesus "was to walk into New York City and preach like he use to." Using Gashade's melody as well as the lyrical structure from "Jesse James," Guthrie provided his answer, putting Jesus in the lead role and having him nailed in the air by the bankers, preachers, cops and soldiers.
Because Guthrie's song is so directly descended from Gashade's, I have included it, as well as covers of it, in the listings for "Jesse James." Due to U2's spirited 1988 cover of "Jesus Christ," Guthrie's revisionmay be as well known -- if not more so -- than the original. [NOTE: In January, 2007, WNYC radio re-broadcast an episode of the Radio Show "Adventures in Music," in which Guthrie performed Gashade's version of "Jesse James." Tihs site includes an mp3 of that recording; to date it is the only recording I know of, of Guthrie performing the song]
Fiddlin' John Carson recorded a song titled "Jesse James" in 1927 that's at best a distant relative of Gashade's; I've included it here. In 1929, Uncle Dave Macon recorded the first vocal performance documented for this site, under the title "Life and Death of Jesse James"; in the 30's the song was recorded by singing cowboys such as Ken Maynard and The Sons of the Pioneers (featuring Leonard Slye, who under his stage name of Roy Rogers later made movies about Jesse James). Burl Ives recorded a version in the 1940s. Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Cisco Houston, The Kingston Trio and Eddie Arnold are among the notables who have recorded it. Bob Seger recorded a rock version of "Jesse James" in 1972.
Among the frequently recorded songs of "The Seeger Sessions," "Jesse James" has the highest percentage of recordings prior to 1950, and also prior to 1975. There are 15 recordings listed from 1925-1949; only "Buffalo Gals" and "John Henry" have more. In the new millennium, however, "Jesse James" has largely been forgotten; among the songs of "The Seeger Sessions," all but 3 have been recorded more often since 2000. This is no doubt is due in part to many other songs being adaptable as children's songs; "Jesse James" has not been recorded for children.
Among the more notable recordings of somewhat more recent vintage, Ry Cooder recorded "Jesse James" in 1980, and Van Morrison recorded a live version with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber in 1998.
Nearly all versions of this song are refer to the subject as "Jesse James"; initial press releases reporting the title on "The Seeger Sessions" as "Jessie James" would have been an exception.