Friday, October 16, 2009

Who Lives By The Sword: "The Ballad Of Jesse James"

One of the darker aspects of American culture as it has evolved to this point has been our collective penchant to make folk heroes out of some really bad people, most notably high-profile criminals and sociopaths - Billy the Kid, John Wesley Harding, Wild Bill Hickock, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and more. The first and most enduring of these has been, of course, Jesse James, who fits the description in the first sentence here perfectly.

It's not that other countries don't have outlaws to celebrate. England has had its Robin Hood (who, as recent discoveries seem to indicate, was a real person), RH's mentor the very real Will o' th' Green, 18th century highwaymen Dick Turpin, your occasional buccaneer or pirate like Edward "Blackbeard" Teach and Captain William Kidd. But these are characters celebrated more for craftiness and guile - their abilities to elude pursuit, evade "justice," and outwit the bumbling tyrants at whose laws they scoffed than they are for the sudden, brutal, murderous, and outright violence of their American counterparts. The English don't make heroes of killers and sociopathic misfits. We do.

The why of that is hard to fathom. It may be because we're a younger country with a clearer image of the misdeeds of these characters, and admittedly with most of the folks on my rogues' gallery above stories have grown around them that seek to mitigate their guilt and justify their violence to some degree - most often as (of course) "Robin Hood" characters, which in fact none of them were at all. I suspect that more significantly, we all aspire to a kind of rugged individualism, in Emerson's phrase, and these outlaws personify the self-created or self-actualized individual who stands outside the bounds of the social order.

Whatever the reason, Jesse James is the perfect character to epitomize the outlaw, a figure in his singular, blind, and raging violence worthy of the first and greatest of American outlaw folk songs. A troubled boy from a troubled family that had been broken and reformed several times in his childhood, James began his career of violence at the age of 15 during the Civil War (or "The War of Northern Aggression," as Mike Askins has instructed me to say) as an irregular cavalryman/guerilla with several notorious outfits associated both with Quantrill's Raiders and the troop of Bloody Bill Anderson. He was a participant at the massacre and scalping of 22 unarmed Union prisoners in Centralia, Missouri in 1863 and may have participated in Quantrill's legendary raid on Lawrence Kansas in which over 200 men and boys were killed (partially in retaliation for a similar massacre in the same town of Southerners by abolitionist John Brown in 1859).

After the war, Jesse and his brother Frank began a long, involved, and violent career of train and bank robberies that resulted in scores of deaths, of law officers, innocent civilians, and a fair number of members of the clannish James family, killed by Pinkertons in retaliation for Jesse's depredations. As most know, it all came crashing down after the failed great Northfield Minnesota bank robbery; Jesse was driven into hiding until bagged by "that dirty little coward" Robert Ford for the reward money.

Within months of Jesse's death, "The Ballad of Jesse James" appeared on songsheets and as a poem in newspapers wherever there were Confederate sympathizers, and the mythologization of Jesse James had begun. The original lyric includes a last verse that attributes the song's composition to "Billy Gashade," but there is no hard evidence that such a man ever existed. It's a real broadside-type ballad - a real folk song.

The Kingston Trio's version here was the first number recorded by the Trio with new member John Stewart, and to the end of his life Stewart delighted in telling how Voyle Gilmore had assembled a number of nervous Capitol Records execs in the glassed-in sound booth - nervous because they feared that their cash cow Trio would cease producing milk with the new guy. Halfway through the first take, Stewart would say, they left the booth smiling when they realized that the basic sound of the group was still as good as gold.

I always thought that this was a Trio misstep, like IMHO "Worried Man" - a great musical setting for a traditional song with disastrously re-written lyric trying to play it for fun. Would have been the best version of the song extant had they taken it seriously. Oh well.

The most recent prominent incarnation of the song has been, of course, by Bruce Springsteen in his 2006 "Seeger Sessions" tour. This is the number in which I think the Boss stayed closest to the folk roots of the song.

The uptempo nature of the song has insured that most of its modern interpreters have been bluegrass bands - here first the very capable Pete Feldmann and the Very Lonesome Boys.

More bluegrass and my find of the week - bluegrass banjo as played on guitar by Martin Tallstrom.

46 years before Springsteen, local Detroit rocker Jamie Coe had a minor local hit with his version:

From the UK, a skiffle-style rendition by the Ramblin' Riversiders:

A damn fine song, born and bred in America, enshrining in popular memory a very bad man whose memory finds some redemption in the ballad.

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