I've always wondered what would have happened if Robert Ford shot Jesse James in the front. Would he still be that "dirty little coward"?
How one looks at the killing of Jesse James, probably depends on how they view him. To some he's a hero. To others he's nothing more than a cold-blooded killer, who acted out of self interest and nothing more. This entry could possibly be subtitled "sing a song of a murdered murderer".
I could go on for pages writing about the history of the James Gang, but in order to get to in the events sung about in the song, I'll post a few bios, here, here and here.
At the time of his death, Jesse James was living under the name Tom Howard, in St. Joseph, Missouri. On April 3 1882, he was preparing for a robbery with the Ford brothers, Charley and Robert. James was unaware that Robert Ford had been working with the Missouri governor to bring him in.
That day, the weather worked in Robert's favor, it was hot enough that James removed his coat. He also removed his fire arms as well, so he wouldn't attract attention. When James stood on a chair to dust off a picture, Robert Ford shot him.
The Ford brothers turned themselves in, and were later tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and then pardoned all in one day.
After they left Missouri with their share of the reward, the brothers made extra money by touring. But it seems that public opinion turned against them, and the song "The Ballad of Jesse James" is evidence of that. Charley Ford, suffering from tuberculosis, committed suicide in 1884. Robert Ford, ended up being murdered himself, when Ed O'Kelley shot him in the saloon that Robert Ford owned in 1892.
Some modern historians have a far more sympathetic view of "the coward", others challenge the view of James as a wild west Robin Hood. Yet the legend still stands. Jesse James' name is still invoked as a hero and a rebel against tyranny (unless you're talking about that other Jesse James), and Robert Ford is still a coward and a traitor.
Vernon Dalhart's version, from 1925
The Kingston Trio
Nick Cave's version from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The movie does a pretty good job of forgoing nostalgia, in it's attempt to portray James and Ford. While I question the historical accuracy of Cave's delivery, I think the scene illustrates the public's view of Ford pretty well.
The Pogues version, which makes sure to mention Charley Ford's involvement in the mix.