The jukebox across the way in the Atwood Center snack bar was playing Elton John. Sitting at The Table, I heard the puzzling title phrase, “I feel like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford.”
It must have been a Monday morning in early 1976, about the time John’s record entered the Top 40. Why a Monday? Because that was the quarter when I was an intern at a Twin Cities television station, and the only times I was at The Table in Atwood that quarter was on the occasional Monday morning when I checked in with my adviser before heading back to the Twin Cities and my sports reporting work.
Anyway, I looked over at the jukebox across the way and wondered out loud, “Who’s Robert Ford?”
The answer came quickly from my friend Sam, one of whose passions was the American West. “He’s the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard,” he said.
I looked blankly at him. “Okay,” I said. “That must mean something.”
He laughed and said, “Robert Ford was the man who shot Jesse James.”
I imagine I nodded, and the conversation went elsewhere and after a while, I headed to my adviser’s office and then back to the Twin Cities. And it’s entirely possible that until I picked up Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to The Long Riders in 1989, I never heard the folk song “Jesse James,” the song that Sam quoted to me that morning. Cooder’s version – which I sadly cannot embed here – plays over the end credits of the Walter Hill movie.*
The song is an old one, written soon after James’ death in 1882 by Billy Gashade (or perhaps LaShade) and first recorded in 1920 by a typewriter salesman named Bently Ball, according to the blog Joop’s Musical Flowers. Until I ran across that citation, the earliest version I knew about – but one I’ve not heard – came from Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1924. Digging around at YouTube in the past few weeks, I’ve found versions by the Kingston Trio from 1961, the South Memphis String Band (a group made up by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars and the Black Crowes; Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Alvin Youngblood Hart) from 2010 and Van Morrison (from a 1998 performance with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber).
(Joop’s Musical Flowers lists many more versions, some dating to 1924, and has video or audio links for some of them.)
The shelves here also include versions by Bob Seger, from his 1972 album, Smokin’ O.P.’s, and by Bruce Springsteen, from his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions and from the 2007 release Live In Dublin.
All of those are worth hearing (well, I’m not sure about the Kingston Trio’s version, which is why I did not link to it), but one of the best is the version by Pete Seeger from his 1957 album, American Favorite Ballads.
* Walter Hill’s film is also notable for the casting of four sets of acting brothers – Keach, Carradine, Quaid and Guest – as, respectively, the historical brothers James, Younger, Miller and Ford.