Jesse James and the Civil War

Why We Enjoy Outlaw Songs

There’s a reason the Outlaw Music of Country and Americana stations has such an appeal to us. They are generally ballads, and they tell stories of bad boys and girls that history and mythology has made into heroes. Take for example, famous outlaws like Jesse James. We know about him, but we don’t know what MADE him. I recently purchased a book entitled, The Civil War in the Ozarks by Phillip W. Steele and Steve Cottrell, and it gave me some insights into Jesse James I wanted to share with you. In a future post, I’ll try to make a list of the Outlaw songs I like.

The philosophical war between Northern and Southern views had been going on both verbally and physically several years before the Civil War actually started. The Civil War in the Ozarks says this of James:

”Jesse James was only 14 when the war began and was too young to be accepted by the Confederate Army or by Quantrill’s irregular forces. While plowing in a field behind his home in late May of 1863, young Jesse was suddenly surrounded by a mounted detail of Union soldiers. Because he refused to answer after being repeatedly asked about the location of his brother Frank and Quantrill’s camp, the detail severely whipped Jesse with bull whips and left him bleeding in the field. Half crawling to the house, he found his stepfather Reuben hanging from a tree and his mother desperately trying to cut him down while his young sister Susan and Sarrah Samuel watched in Horror. Dr. Samuel had been left hanging by the Federal [Yankee] party after several unsuccessful attempts to get information from him about his stepson’s whereabouts. He did not die from the hanging but oxygen had been deprived from his brain so long he would remain mentally incapacitated the rest of his life. Although Jesse was now only 15 years of age, the tragic events of the day inspired him to wait no longer and he left to join Quantrill’s ranks.”

After Jesse James became a Confederate guerrilla fighter, his leadership and fighting abilities were recognized quickly. Here are some notable incidents that I gleaned from Cottrell’s book: Jesse James was the one who shot down the Federal Major Johnson who with a force of mounted infantry had attempted to capture Bloody Bill Anderson. The Federal forces were decimated ferociously near Centralia, Missouri. Jesse and his brother Frank also rescued the captured General Jo Shelby and his staff from the Federals in Arkansas. Jesse eventually drifted into Indian Territory and participated in battles at Cabin Creek and other localities. He and others settled for a while in Scyene, Texas, near Dallas with the Shirley family. (John Shirley’s beautiful daughter, Myra Maebelle, would later be known as Belle Starr). When he heard the war ended, Jesse and a “sizable group of his associates” approached A Federal garrison at Lexington, Missouri, under a white flag, with plans to surrender. Jesse was seriously wounded with a “bullet in his right lung and in one leg.” James suffered greatly from these wounds the rest of his life. There is no doubt that this was another setback that spurred him on down the outlaw trail.

Jesse James was “never again known to officially surrender.”

This photo of James was taken in Platte City, Missouri in 1864 and shows him in typical guerrilla uniform and carrying three pistols.

Jesse James, Platte, Missouri, July 1864

Jesse James, Platte City, Missouri, July 1864

Is there any wonder why this boy refused to make peace with the Yankees and became an outlaw and a killer? Another of the many untold stories of history.

Here are the lyrics for a song written by Warren Zevon that I learned from Johnny Oneal when I played bass guitar with him (If you don’t know about Johnny and his music, you can read about him here.) I also perform the song when I do my own Americana show.

Frank and Jesse James

On a small Missouri farm
Back when the west was young
Two boys learned to rope and ride
And be handy with a gun

War broke out between the states
And they joined up with Quantrill
And it was over in Clay County
That Frank and Jesse finally learned to kill

Keep on riding, riding, riding
Frank and Jesse James
Keep on riding, riding, riding
‘Til you clear your names
Keep on riding, riding, riding
Across the rivers and the range
Keep on riding, riding, riding Frank and Jesse James

After Appomattox they were on the losing side
So no amnesty was granted
And as outlaws they did ride
They rode against the railroads,
And they rode against the banks
And they rode against the governor
Never did they ask for a word of thanks


Robert Ford, a gunman
Did exchange for his parole
Took the life of James the outlaw
Which he snuck up on and stole
No one knows just where they came to be misunderstood
But the poor Missouri farmers knew
Frank and Jesse do the best they could


Gram Parsons: A Brief Look at His Life and Music

As I was sitting at my computer working on promotions for my children’s book, The Scottish Alphabet, I was listening to the Americana music station on cable TV. As usual when I listen to station 848 (Comcast) I picked up on a song that I might like to learn. This song was performed by Emmy Lou Harris, and was entitled “Sin City.”  I found three or four versions of “Sin City” on YouTube. I found the lyrics moving and intense. Here they are:

Sin City  by Gram Parson

This old town is filled with sin
It will swallow you in
If you’ve got some money to burn
Take it home right away
You’ve got three years to pay
But Satan is waiting his turn

The scientists say
It will all wash away
But we don’t believe any more
Cause we’ve got our recruits
And our green mohair suits
So please show your I.D. At the door

This old earthquake’s gonna leave me in the poor house
It seems like this whole town’s insane
On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door
Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain

A friend came around
Tried to clean up this town
His ideas made some people mad
But he trusted his crowd
So he spoke right out loud
And they lost the best friend they had

This old earthquake’s gonna leave me in the poor house
It seems like this whole town’s insane
On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door
Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain
On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door
Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain


As usual, one thought led to another, and I began to do a little research on Gram Parsons. There was much about him I didn’t know. I thought I’d make a quick list. You can find much more information about Gram on the Web, but especially  here:

1. Gram was the first Country/Rock Star. Gram says he influenced groups like “The Byrds, The Eagles and The Rolling Stones, as well as such new 1990’s Gram inspired bands as Son Volt, The Jayhawks, The Lemonheads, Wilco and Dash Rip Rock” and the “inspiration of the Country-Rock movement which involved such bands as The Eagles, Pure Prairie League, The New Riders Of The Purple Sage and The Desert Rose Band . . .”  Gram’s own band was called, Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels. Emmy Lou Harris was closely tied to the band.

2. Songs that have a connection to Gram Parsons: “Wild Horses.”  Evidently Gram was the inspiration for this song. Gram also arranged the song, “Honky Tonk Women.”

3. The Gram Parson website says, “Gram died September 19, 1973 in Joshua Tree, California, a part of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, at the age of 26.” Evidently, the hard living desert wanderer is buried in Louisiana. The same website says this: “During the funeral ceremony for Gram’s close friend Clarence White, Gram was overheard stating that when he died, rather than being buried in the ground, he would like to be taken out to The Joshua Tree desert of southern California and burned. After Gram died in The Joshua Tree Inn, his body was taken to the Los Angeles International Airport in preparation for being flown to Louisiana for burial. Gram’s road manager Phil Kaufman and a friend, Michael Martin, got very intoxicated, borrowed a broken down hearse and drove to LAX to retrieve the body. When they arrived, they told the shipping clerk that Gram’s remains were to be sent out of another airport, flashed some bogus paperwork and falsely signed for the body. After crashing into a wall and almost being arrested, Phil, Michael and Gram drove back to The Joshua Tree Desert, stopping only to buy more beer and a container of gasoline. They took Gram’s remains into the desert, poured gasoline inside the coffin and set him ablaze. The two were arrested several days later and fined $700.00 for stealing and burning the COFFIN (it was is not against the law to steal a dead body). Gram’s partially burned remains were finally laid to rest in a modest cemetery near New Orleans, LA.

2. There is an extensive and interesting article about Parsons at Wickipedia. There is also a Gram Parsons Project site, which I like very much. It intends “to convey a rounded, in-depth portrait of this massively influential musician by tapping into the recollections of those who knew and worked with him.” You can visit that site here:

Civil War Reenacting in California

Last spring, in one of my posts of Catalina Island, I made a post (March 26) with some thoughts of how the C.S.S. Shenandoah affected the California coast.  In this post I want to feature a new friend, a fellow Civil War reenactor in California. His name is Alonso Chattan.  His  Living History persona is Alonzo Goodblood, Major, Medical Services.  He attends the Fort Point events in San Francisco. In addition to  his passion for Civil War history, he plays the Great Highland Bagpipes and Uilleann pipes.  He has a great love for Celtic music.

Alonso says there is a good bit of Civil War reenacting in the Bay Area and in Northern California.  He says they have large groups of Civil War reenactors, including the NCWA and ACWA .  He adds:
“Angel Island and Fort Point at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge on the San Francisco side as well as several forts were manned throughout the war to prevent Confederate ships from entering the bay. Never fired a shot in anger. I am told the only time it happened was when a British ship entered the bay and its flag was furled. The garrison on Angel Island fired across its bow; the Brits thought it a salute and, fortunately, the flag unfurled and was visible thus avoiding an incident.
“The rangers at the fort told us that and I have no reason to doubt it. I hope you do get to visit Fort Point. It is a marvelous piece of period architecture. The walls are a fantastic bit of brick artistry. California granite was used for the staircases. Really worth a trip to visit.”

I am going to have a post about Clan Chattan, which Alonso belongs to, in the future.  Here is a great Living History photo of Alonso.

Thoughts on Civil War Fiction

Civil War Fiction

Books about the Civil War continue to be churned out. I think the War Between the States must be one of the most popular topics to write about. Through the years, I’ve managed to build up a respectable library on the War, both of fiction and nonfiction. Some of the literature is very good, some VERY bad—badly written, full of inaccuracies and stereotypes and misinformation. I’m working on a book for one of my publishers, Booklocker, on how to write about the Civil War, and I’m designing a college-level course on Civil War fiction. This book is on the list of my future projects, and as soon as I get a lot of rat killing done, I can see to it.

As an English teacher for both the high school and college levels, I’ve read and taught many books about the Civil War that are in the genre of fiction. If you’re a teacher, or just one who is interested in reading good Civil War fiction, here’s a list of a few of those books with some comments.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. An all time best seller and classic on the Civil War—and with good reason. I don’t think anyone has written anything comparable. It is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, few in the modern generation have read it. Few have even seen the movie, one of the greatest movies of all time.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier The movie was good, the book is better, but as they say, “Never judge a book by its movie.” This novel is rich in detail, honest about the Confederates who fought in the war, and more or less written from a Confederate-friendly point of view. His second epic novel on the Civil War didn’t have as much success, in spite of the big bucks he received for it.

Andersonville by McKinlay Kantor. When I first began reading this novel, I was expecting more of the usual Yankee-point-of-view misinformation and propaganda. I was delightfully surprised. An honest representation of both sides and an unsettling description of this Georgia prisoner of war camp.

Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. Okay, I know this is a commonly taught book, on at least one AP list I’ve seen, and I know it presents the dynamics of a divided country (and families) well, but the ending spoiled it for me. The ending (with a deus ex machina feel to it) promotes the “Saint Lincoln” myth. I suppose Lincoln was capable of acts of kindness on occasion, but for every deserter he spared (as in this story) he executed or arrested many more, including civilians.

The Writings of Ambrose Bierce: Bierce is best known for his story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which is rightfully a standard inclusion in high school and college anthologies. Bierce actually wrote a collection of Civil War Stories and it is worth reading. Though he was a Yankee, he writes about the war with the venom of a Copperhead (Democrats in the North who opposed the war). Definitely worth reading. I recently taught his haunting story, “Chickamauga” in my college American Literature class.

Stephen Crane: Crane is the author of The Red Badge of Courage which has been a classic for a long time. This is a great novel. Though the main character is a Yankee soldier, it is NOT a anti-South book. Rather, it reflects the philosophy of Naturalism which Crane embraced. A beautiful and well-written novel. Crane also has a collection of short fiction about the War entitled, The Little Regiment and Other Stories. This is also a good read.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel should be read in conjunction with God’s and Generals and The Last Full Measure by Jeffrey Shaara, Michael’s son. As I’m sure you know, God’s and Generals was made into a movie. Killer Angels was the basis of the movie, Gettysburg. There are Youtube segments of this movie and I even found a study guide for Gettysburg.

I’ll have more to say on the literature of the Civil War in future articles.

Jed Marum: On Guitar Tunings and Chords

Jed Marum’s banjo and guitar picking is beautiful, intricate, and captivating. Every time I listen and see Jed, I learn something new. Go to his website (here) to hear some samples of his guitar work. But if you’ve ever wondered about how to best tune your guitar, I think Jed explains it well. This is an excerpt from his book, TIGERS AND RIVER SONGBOOK, Jed Marum’s Civil War Music 2006. (Used by permission). If you’re a guitar picker, I would highly recommend you add this book to your library.

You will notice that I list the chord forms I use, and not the exact chords for a given key. That is, if I capo at 2 and play C, F and G chords, I list C, F and G, even though technically I am playing D, G and A. I do this because this is the way most players talk about how they are playing. At large jam sessions, you’ll frequently hear someone ask “What key?” and the answer comes, “I’m in 2 and playing C.”

I have also written the chords for standard guitar tuning, though I often use VESATPOL on the recordings. I sometimes use Drop D and I play one song in this collection in DADGAD. I have described these tunings in more detail below. Also, some songs from the albums I play on banjo or banjola. In those cases I’ve described the guitar chords in standard tuning.

You can try the songs in those tunings – or you can try modifying some of the standard chords – something I also do frequently when using standard tuning.

A few examples:

•    Play the F chord while leaving open the A on the third string and play a G note within the F chord.
•    Play a C Chord with the middle E open, leaving a D note within the C chord.
•    For G you can drop the high G note, and play it open and have an E note within your G chord and to further suspend it, add a high D note on the third fret of the second string.
•    For A, drop the C# from the second string and play it open (B)

Playing with these modified chords in your accompaniment; sometime using the full chord, sometime adding “color” to it by playing one of these modifications – can give you added movement to the chord patterns.

About the Tunings

VESTAPOL tuning is open D. I drop the 6th sting to a D, leave the 5th and 4th stings tuned to A and D. Then I drop the 3rd string to F#, the 2nd string to A and the 1st string to D. For a quick guide for using this tuning, locate a 5 string banjo chord chart and apply the chord forms to strings 5 through 2. You’ll find they work perfectly – but you’re tuned lower, so your banjo G chord (all open) is a D on your guitar. Your banjo chart’s G, C, D chords will actually be D G, A on your guitar.

Tune your strings:

6 to 5 at the 7th fret
5 to 4 at the 5th fret
4 to 3 at the 4th fret
3 to 2 at the 3rd fret
2 to 1 at the 5th fret

Also note that your banjo chords do not cover the 1st and the 6th strings. You can experiment to discover how to extend the full chords, but you’ll also find that playing them open frequently gives you a pleasant, droning effect. This tuning gives you a nice set of partial chords up the neck and of course, bar chords are full and easy to use at 5, 7 and sometimes 2 or 5.

Drop D

Tune your 6th string to 5 at the 7th fret. This is the simplest of the tunings I use and it is popular among guitar players already. It most commonly used for songs in the key of D and sometime G. Generally speaking, you play your standard tuning chord forms allowing for the lower tuned 6th string. This tuning gives a powerful low end to your D chord and adds some new color to your accompaniment.

DADGAD tuning is similar to VESTAPOL, except you do not move your 3rd string from standard tuning, you leave it at G.

Tune your strings:

6 to 5 at the 7th fret
5 to 4 at the 5th fret
4 to 3 at the 5th fret
3 to 2 at the 3rd fret
2 to 1 at the 5th fret

This is a rich tuning and there are chord charts available but you’ll find that normal rules do not apply. I have simply developed the few chords I use for this tuning on my own through experimentation. I use a more rhythmic approach to accompaniment in this tuning, rather then harmonic. A few key chord comments can help you get started:

Playing all strings open with a finger on the second fret of the third string gives you something close to a D chord. Fret the 5th string at the 3rd fret and the 4th string at the 2nd fret, blunt the 6th string, play all others open and you have something like an A. Fret the 5th string a the 2nd fret and play all others open, you have a G.

Art of Louisiana Delta Community College Students

I want to thank Chauston and Whitney for allowing me to post their art. Both of them were great students in my ENG 102 class.

Whitney Trisler: Art Education Major

One of the great aspects of working at a college is seeing great artists created. In my 102 class, Whitney Trisler is such an artist. She is an art education major, and this semester I’ve seen at least five of her charcoal pieces featured on the walls of Delta’s Eastgate campus. Here is a charcoal portrait Whitney created of one of my favorite artists–Bob Dylan, songwriter, musician, poet, and American icon. She is an excellent writer as well as an artist. This tells me she has her eyes and mind open to the world, as devoted artists tend to do.

Chauston Mason: Writer, Artist, and Student

Chauston is not an art major, he just likes to create good art. I found him to be a diligent and interesting student. Here is an image of a chair he painted. He managed to create wonderful depth in it. I am sure Chauston will do well at whatever he does.

Christmas Lullaby by Amy Grant: Chords and Lyrics

Christmas decorations  (and sales) are now everywhere. One of my favorite Christmas songs and one I’ve included in my own little Christmas show is one I heard by the talented and beautiful Amy Grant. It’s entitled, “Christmas Lullaby.”  If you’ve heard one of her Christmas albums, you’ve heard it. Here are the lyrics, followed by the chords I figured out. Of course, my transcription of the words and my chords may be inaccurate. If so, please write me so I can correct them. I home this song blesses you this Christmas season as it did me. I did not include the key change as that is quite impractical for my acoustic program.  I couldn’t find a Youtube video of Grant doing this song, but if I do, I’ll post the link here.

“Christmas Lullaby” ( I Will Lead You Home)

Are you far away from home
This dark and lonely night
Tell me what best would help
To ease your mind
Someone to give
Direction for this unfamiliar road
Or one who says, "follow me and i
Will lead you home."

How beautiful
How precious
The savior of all
To love so
The loneliest soul
How gently
How tenderly
He says to one and all,
"child you can follow me an
I will lead you home
Trust me and follow me
And I will lead you home."

Be near me, lord jesus
I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me I pray
Bless all the dear children
In thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with thee there
Take us to heaven
To live with thee there

Chords: G C G D Em C D     G C B C G D Em C  G D G  (I capo on the third fret and it sounds like an Am7 can be substituted for the C chords I listed)

FREE CHILDREN’S BOOK: To help any aspiring children book illustrators or authors, I wanted to offer this gift. Thanks should go to the beautiful and talented Bonnie Barnes of Region XI for helping make this download possible.


The Hanging of David O. Dodd: An Excerpt

When I was in Little Rock as a speaker for the Arkansas Reading Association, the story of David O. Dodd was on my mind. I had intended to visit the school named after him, but my schedule prevented me. For today’s post, I wanted to share an excerpt from my story, “The Hanging of David O. Dodd” that is in my collection of short historical fiction–Stories of the Confederate South.  I’ve read everything I could find about Dodd, and constructed my story on the basis of the facts I found.  I hope to write a song about him some day.

The Hanging of David O. Dodd

Stand fast, good Fate, to his hanging! Make the rope of his destiny our cable . . .—The Tempest I.1.16
January 8, 1864 Little Rock, Arkansas

The Arkansas River had frozen as hard as a miser’s heart.  Mary, along with her mother and father, joined the stream of Little Rock citizens crossing the ice-bridge to the grounds of St. John’s academy. The snow crunched beneath brogan and boot-clad feet, and the ice-face of the river moaned and creaked beneath the load of melancholy Southerners who trudged toward the Tyburn tree nightmare.

With children in arms and in tow, the Arkansas pilgrims converged onto the grounds of St. John’s College. Outside the stone building, a line of cadets, former classmates of the boy they have come to honor, stand at attention, wordless and weaponless in their white and gray uniforms. The Federal officers had heard rumors of trouble, so, near the gallows, lines of Federal soldiers stood stiffly at shoulder arms, their bayonets fixed. Mary hoped there would be trouble—a riot, an insurrection, something to bring grief to Steele and the 15,000 Federals troops who had invaded Little Rock.

Directly ahead, she saw Minerva, a girlfriend, waving her hand. Mary returned the greeting and walked to her.  Minerva wore a heavy woolen black, hooded cape, and with her head bowed and hands stuffed inside a fur muff, Mary thought Minerva looked like a monk. The two girls, both sixteen, walked together to the line of large oaks that bordered the academy. They huddled together like the women who once gathered at the foot of the cross in the Gospels—another execution carried out by another brutal and powerful government. They spoke of David, of the holiday dances of recent weeks, of secret kisses, and walks. The north wind carried away their whispered words.

A woman’s voice called out, “Minerva! You need to join us now.”
Minerva coughed and touched her teary eyes with a white handkerchief embroidered along its edges with tiny red roses.  “I must return to my mother.  She is most upset by David’s troubles. She says it’s a sign of the end of the world.”
“Of our world perhaps.”
“How could this happen, Mary? How could they accuse David of being a spy?”
“I don’t know, Minerva. I don’t know.”
“I know you took a fancy to him too, Mary, but it breaks my heart to think of the Yankees hanging David. You don’t think he was a spy, do you, Mary?”
“No, of course not.”
“Mother says you must go to Vermont.”
“Yes.  It seems I’ve been exiled from Little Rock.  General Steele practically accused me of being David’s accomplice.  Father and I will leave the day after tomorrow.”
Minerva embraced her and said, “I will miss you, Mary.”

When Minerva left, Mary circled the tree until she saw David’s initials carved on the tree next to her own. She removed a glove and placed her bare fingers on the letters and she shivered as if she had touched magical runes. “Oh, David,” she whispered. “If only you hadn’t been such a showoff, writing down everything you saw and thought in that strange Morse code.  If only you hadn’t copied down what we heard those Yankees saying in my house . . . .”  Mary looked again at the gibbet that the Yankees had built that morning.   It was constructed of two tall timbers joined at the top by a rough crossbeam.  Beneath the crossbeam dangled a thick hangman’s noose.
Near the crude gallows, Alderman Henry seemed to be engaged in somber conference with a group of Little Rock citizens. With him stood Mr. Walker and Mr. Fishback, the attorneys Henry had hired to represent David. Mary’s father now conversed with two Federal officers who billeted at their house.  His eyes met Mary’s, then turned away.  Mary could sense the hurt, disappointment, disgust, and anxiety that he felt. “Daddy,” she sobbed, and she leaned against the tree and buried her face in her arm.
A hand touched her shoulder. “Don’t you dare cry, Mary,” her mother whispered.  Her voice was bitter, with an edge sharp enough to cut a Yankee’s throat.  “David needs you to be strong.”
“Daddy betrayed David to the Yankees,” Mary said.  “And he as much as admitted to General Steele that I was guilty too.”
“No, your father’s just making sure they don’t hang you as a spy’s accomplice or send you to Rock Island.  The Yankees would just as soon hang a woman as man. You’ve heard what they’ve done to women in Alabama and Georgia.”  Her mother handed her a handkerchief. “Now, wipe your face.”

*   *    *

*I hope you enjoyed this excerpt. If you have any questions about David O. Dodd, please send them my way.

Mickey Newbury Lyrics: “Angeline”

Exam Week

This week is exam week at ULM and at Delta. VA College is after that, so time will be a priceless commodity for a while.

Though I may make another post later today, today’s post is the lyrics of “Angeline,” another song by Mickey Newbury.


Yesterday’s newspaper
Forecast no rain for today
But yesterday’s news is old news,
The skies are all grey
Winter’s in labor
And soon will give birth to the spring
Sprinkled  the meadow
With flowers for my Angeline

Heartache and sorrow
And sadness unendingly find
Wings on her memory
And with them she flies to my mind
She stretched her arms for a moment
Then went back to sleep
While morning stood watching me
Ever so silently weep

She opened her eyes Lord
The minute my feet touched the floor
The cold hardwood creaks
With each step that I make to the door
There I turned to her gently and said,
“Hon, just look, it’s spring”
Knowing outside the window
The winter looked for Angeline
But yesterday’s newspaper
Forecast no rain for today.