Jesse James Born Today in the County of Clay

“He was born one day in the County of Clay
And he came from a solitary race.”

On today’s date in 1847, Jesse James was born in Clay County Missouri. Within two years, his father, the Rev. Robert James, ran off and left his family behind to go to look for gold in California, never to return. Their mother Zerelda soon remarried a stepfather who was abusive to Jesse and his brother Frank, and she would later marry another stepfather.

As a teenager in the border state of Missouri, Jesse learned to kill for the South during the Civil War, as did his brother Frank. Then the brothers went on to a life of crime. By most accounts, Jesse was not the Robin Hood hero as portrayed in the traditional “Ballad of Jesse James,” made famous by Woody Guthrie and others. But sometimes we need outlaw heroes to inspire us to fight authority. Below is a version of the song by Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band, starting with a long banjo introduction.

Springsteen’s version of the ballad appears on We Shall Overcome The Seeger Sessions. Other songs that reference James include Cher’s “Just Like Jesse James” from 1988. If you wish to celebrate Jesse James’s birthday with a film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the most beautiful movies of recent years. While slow-paced at times, the movie, which stars Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, is elegiac and poetic.

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