The Land of the Outlaw Amish is filled with mysteries. Ancient mounds, built by the pre-historic Adena, dot the landscape. The longest cave system in the world twines through this place Native Americans called ‘The Dark and Bloody Ground’. Rivers tumble along side and even in them, deeper than man can measure. Roads only recently paved have hundreds of years old wagon tracks embedded in them, retaining the physical memory of thousands’ ventures into the Wild West.
It is, of course, a place filled with ghosts. Some are in Algonquin headdress. Some seem forever locked in the Civil War or it’s aftermath. These, it is whispered, include the spirits of the infamous James/Younger Gang, to this day the most famous of all the figures of the Old West. They return, some say, because this is where, surrounded by friends and family, they were, happiest.If you ask the locals about Jesse James, many tell family tales. It is not unusual to be told their Grandparents or Great-Grandparents not only spoke often of James and his Gang but spoke of them highly. “My Great-Grandmother would get mad about people in later times calling Jesse James an Outlaw.” One man, a descendant of renegade Confederate General Morgan, said, “She’d insist Jesse James was NOT an Outlaw but a hero.” “He’d brought a horse from her…”, he continued, “and gave her a bag of money in exchange that far, far exceeded even the best price.” The story is one of many about their kindness and generosity. All are delivered with firm belief and conviction.
The caves of Near-Nashville, most likely more than once, provided an excellent hiding place. They weren’t always tucked away, however.
When visiting Bardstown and Woodbury, however, James hid in plain sight. He signed a now abandoned Woodbury hotel registry with his own name. In Bardstown, one historic site boasts bullet holes from his gun. Whether he was shooting at someone or simply shooting for fun at the time remains a point of some discussion. James’ most infamous exploit here followed one of his first bank robberies in nearby Russellville, Kentucky. Members of the James Gang were certainly not Outlaws as we usually think of them in the West. They took the bank following a post-Civil War skirmish in Lexington, Missouri. Laws had been passed forbidding Southerners to vote, preach or serve on a jury, and the men were among many who fought Northern Occupation. When their commander was killed, they robbed the Lexington bank, removing the town’s money from the hands of Union troops. Probably en route to relatives, they robbed the bank in Russellville, Kentucky not long after. Someone in the group, it’s not known, was wounded in the fray. They traveled the short distance further to Bowling Green, where they appear to have known a doctor who would not report them. It’s said that James himself came to seek his aid. To avoid being seen, they hid out in a cave called Lost River while their friend recovered enough to ride on. Some years later, when the Gang was in full swing, they also robbed a Stagecoach filled with visitors touring the area’s largest attraction, Mammoth Cave.
Fast forward in time… to the present day where I sit writing songs by Lost River Cave. It was the day after Levon Helm died and I had just finished my song about him. As I put down my pen, I distinctly heard a whistle. Startled, I looked around; no one there. I later joked to friends, “I doubt very seriously, if it was a ghost. I doubt even more seriously it was the ghost of Mr. Helm. However,” I continued, “Jesse James hid out in a cave just a few miles from here; it may well have been him saying, “Hey, don’t worry about Levon, he and I are just hanging around up here whistling Dixie.” “Whistlin’ Dixie with Levon” then, of course, became the name of the tune and the image of Levon and James whistling, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was added to the song itself. The reason I had associated Helm with James was, in part, a concept album he did in the 80s. It was a sort of Outlaw Opera, though it was never performed on stage, with narrative tunes about the James/Younger Gangs exploits. Helm was Jesse and Johnny Cash his brother Frank. It is also an album with a great deal of personal meaning for me. In the last year of his life, my Dad had wanted to hear only 3 things and those continuously. Jesse James, it’s companion album, White Mansions, (featuring Waylon Jennings and Jessie Colter) and Woody Guthrie. Dad had phenomenal taste in music.
All of these factors combined gave me an idea; a marvelous, wonderful idea. I’d toyed with writing an Outlaw Opera about James and related figures in Southern history for some time. Why not, I thought, combine them with the Mojo Sideshow. The Sideshow is a multi-media event I wrote and produced some time ago. It features some of New York’s top artists alongside leaders of the Southern music and art scenes. They were joined by actors, dancers and specialty acts like fire dancers, burlesque and magic. When put together, the components illustrated a sort of Southern Gothic Faust with an Outlaw Country score.
I’d had the good fortune of receiving input on the first script from Beat Poet Charles Plymell, who recently had suggested making some of the poems songs; (he called them ‘poem-songs’). I sent some based on the James/Younger Gangs’ time in and around Lost River Cave, to him. To my surprise, my email the next day contained a letter from the Grandson of one of the Youngers, courtesy of Mr. Plymell. Of course, I continued writing the songs and sharing them with the two geniuses mentioned above. A Mojo Wild West Show was underway.
Then… well, then things just started falling into place as though a multi-
media production were meant to be. I discovered a haunted hotel, virtually unchanged since the 1800s, in the upstairs of a store on the square. I found myself wandering through tangled vines to the ruin of another hotel where James had signed the registry. I practiced the songs dead in the path of the wagon road from Russellville to Bowling Green. All the while, I recorded video, drew scenes from the locations, created additional art with help from talented local video/photography artists.
You can follow the making of the Mojo Wild West Show at my new, interactive website: http://jessejamesandthegenerals.blogspot.com. Be sure to check back here at the blog for more stories and related media too. Next, a visit to a Green River ghost town.
To Be Continued…
1.) Photo by James Neighbors. Lonesome Liz at haunted 1880s hotel video set, Labold and Sons, Bowling Green, KY.
2.) Jesse James
3.) “Jesse James Checks In” Art by Lonesome Liz, drawn in Woodbury, KY
4.) Photo by James Nieghbors. Lonesome Liz at haunted 1880s hotel video set, Labold and Sons, Bowling Green, KY.
5.) Mojo Sideshow Sign by Wes Freed, (http://www.wesfreed.com)
6.) The Haunted Hallway, Labold and Sons
Lonesome Liz “The Gray Ghost” rehearsal video, live from an Outlaw Amish Barn with cattle chorus. Filmed by Aaron Vegas. Inspired by Wes Freed’s tales of his Grandfather and Great Uncles, who rode with Col. Mosby.
~ Lonesome Liz
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