Why Is There No Ballad of Frank James?

Frank James 1898

On August 21 in 1883, Frank James went on trial in Gallatin, Missouri. In April 1882, Robert Ford had shot and killed Frank’s brother Jesse. Instead of waiting for someone to shoot him in the back, Frank James decided to turn himself in to authorities in October 1882.

Despite the crimes committed by the Janes brothers, many Missourians thought highly of the two outlaws. Although the James-Younger Gang had killed many people during their robberies, many citizens saw them as heroes, taking money from the banks and railroads and giving it back to the poor.

Post-Civil War sympathies also helped Frank James, who had fought for the South. So, the jury found him not guilty. Likewise, Alabama would fail to convict Frank James of armed robbery.

After the Trial

In late 1883, Missouri released James, and he went to live with his mother in Oklahoma for awhile. He lived within the law, doing a number of jobs including berry picker, shoe salesman, lecturer, Burlesque theater ticket taker and betting commissioner.

Unlike his brother, Frank James died peacefully in Missouri on February 18, 1915 at the age of 72. He was cremated and his ashes were kept in a bank vault to avoid the risk of grave robbers. Eventually, his ashes were buried with his wife in Missouri.

Popular Culture

There is a very inaccurate Henry Fonda movie about Frank after Jesse’s death, called The Return of Frank James (1940). The film was a sequel to 1939’s Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power.

Perhaps, because Frank James died peacefully, he never became the subject of many songs like his brother did. The most famous song about Frank’s brother is the folk song “Jesse James,” which makes Jesse a hero and calls his killer a coward.

“Jesse James” was first recorded in 1924, and it also appears in the excellent 2007 movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, where Sam Shepard played Frank James. Bruce Springsteen recorded a nice version as part of his Seeger Sessions.

Below is a version of “Jesse James” by Van Morrison with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber from The Skiffle Sessions (2000).

Although dying in a blaze of violence is more likely to be mythologized than a quiet death at old age, I suspect there is yet to be a great song written about Frank James.

(Photo of Frank James via Library of Congress – Public Domain)

What is your favorite version of “Jesse James”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    2 thoughts on “Why Is There No Ballad of Frank James?”

    1. Thanks to Frank Cogliano on Twitter, who pointed me to Warren Zevon’s “Frank and Jesse James” as a song that does give Frank James top billing.

      The song, however, does not tell us much about Frank as someone separate from Jesse.

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