“Jesse James (I)”

Alternate titles: “Oh, People Ain't You Sorry”
Author: unknown (many versions claim to be written by Billy Gashade)
Earliest date: 1887 (Comic and Sentimental Songs)
Keywords: outlaw death
Found in: US(Ap,MA,MW,So,SE)


Jesse James's career is briefly described, with praise given to his (alleged) acts of charity. The story of James's murder is then told, focusing on the treachery of Robert Ford, "the dirty little coward that shot 'Mister Howard.'"


It should probably be noted that Jesse James (1847-1882) wasn't as nice a person as this song depicts. He began his career with Quantrill's raiders (today we would say "terrorists"), and his behavior never improved much except that he eventually began to seek a more permanent residence.

"Thomas Howard" was the name used by James when he settled down in Saint Joseph, Missouri. It was not a "retirement name"; he was still committing robberies when he died.

The "Billy Gashade" mentioned in some texts as the author is unknown (the name "Billy Lashade" occurs in the 1887 songster text, for which see Cohen-LSRail).

This version is the "standard" Jesse James song, usually beginning "Jesse James was a lad who killed many a man, He robbed the Glendale train." The usual chorus runs, "(Poor) Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life, Three children, they were brave. But the dirty little coward who shot Mister Howard Has laid Jesse James in his grave."

For full background on Frank and Jesse James, see the notes to "Jesse James (III)," the James song which has perhaps the strongest factual basis. - RBW

Historical references

Same tune

Cross references



  1. Laws E1, Jesse James (I)
  2. Cohen-LSRail, pp. 97-116, "Jesse James" (2 texts, 1 tune, plus sundry excerpts from various Jesse James songs and copies of two sheet music covers)
  3. Belden, pp. 401-404, "Jesse James" (3 texts, of which only the first is this song)
  4. Randolph 132, "Jesse James" (6 texts plus an excerpt, 6 tunes, but Laws refers the B version to Laws E2; the excerpt "C" may also go there)
  5. Randolph/Cohen, pp. 146-148, "Jesse James" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 132F)
  6. BrownII 243, "Jesse James" (4 texts plus 3 excerpts and mention of 3 more; of these, the "A" and "B" texts are certainly this, and probably "G" also though it has wandered far; "I" is "Jesse James (II)")
  7. Chappell-FSRA 112, "Jesse James" (1 fragment, placed here by Laws although it's not typical of the type)
  8. Hudson 99, pp. 235-237, "Jesse James" (2 texts plus a fragment and mention of 3 more; the "B" text and "C" fragment are Laws E1; the "A" text is Laws E2)
  9. Cambiaire, pp. 17-18, "Jesse James" (1 text)
  10. Gardner/Chickering 139, "Jesse James" (1 short text without a chorus plus mention of 1 more, 1 tune)
  11. Larkin, pp. 154-157, "Jesse James" (1 text, 1 tune)
  12. Leach, pp. 753-755, "Jesse James" (3 texts)
  13. Friedman, p. 377, "Jesse James" (2 texts, but only the first is this ballad; Laws lists the second as Jesse James III, dE44)
  14. Sandburg, pp. 374-375, "I Went Down to the Depot" (1 text, 1 tune, heavily folk processed); 420-421, "Jesse James" (1 text, 1 tune)
  15. Lomax-FSUSA 80, "Jesse James" (1 text, 1 tune)
  16. Lomax-FSNA 183, "Jesse James" (1 text, 1 tune, which Laws places here but which is noticeably different from most other texts of this type)
  17. Lomax-ABFS, pp. 128-131, "Jesse James" (2 texts, 1 tune, but only the first is this ballad; the second is Jesse James II, Laws E2)
  18. Burt, pp. 191-192, "(Jesse James)" (1 excerpt)
  19. Fife-Cowboy/West 93, "Jesse James" (5 texts, 2 tunes, of which the "A" and "B" texts are Laws E1 and the others are distinct)
  20. LPound-ABS, 64, pp. 145-146, "Jesse James"; p. 146, "Jesse James" (2 texts)
  21. JHCox 44, "Jesse James" (1 text)
  22. PSeeger-AFB, p. 36, "Jesse James" (1 text, 1 tune)
  23. Gilbert, pp. 190-191, "Jesse James" (1 text)
  24. Pankake-PHCFSB, p. 273, "Jesse James" (1 text)
  25. Silber-FSWB, p. 202, "Jesse James" (1 text)
  26. Saffel-CowboyP, p. 188-189, "Jesse James" (1 text)
  27. DT 619, JESSJAME*
  28. Roud #2240
  29. BI, LE01