“In the Pines” — A song that remains open-ended after 150 years

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Lead Belly In the Pines

“This song was written by my favorite performer—our favorite performer.”

Kurt Cobain’s introduction to the final song in Nirvana‘s set for MTV’s Unplugged, recorded in November of 1993, probably seemed a little surprising at the time. Alternative and grunge bands, especially the ones fortunate enough to get some primetime air on MTV when music was still its foremost programming, rarely invoked ’40s-era folk-blues singers. Yet everything about that performance seemed as if it were intended to throw off assumptions about who Nirvana were and what they did, their set comprising a half-dozen covers, one or two singles and the rest all deep cuts, as if the band were workshopping their own version of the Great American Songbook with several of their own songs (many of which, to be fair, are now essentially standards).

The set closer that Cobain introduces is “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, a song that may or may not be a murder ballad—at least not in the way that “Stagger Lee” or “The Murder of the Lawson Family” are—is definitely a song about at least one person’s death, and in this permutation, a decapitation. Possibly caused by a speeding train, that detail’s a bit fuzzy, but the grisly aftermath is the image that imprints on the memory. And Nirvana, to their credit, play the song with a kind of haunted intensity, borrowed in part from Mark Lanegan’s own version on 1990’s The Winding Sheet—on which both Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic performed. Cobain just had one detail off (for which he can be forgiven for reasons I’ll get into momentarily): Lead Belly didn’t write “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

Though Lead Belly didn’t come up with it whole cloth, he’s in large part responsible for popularizing the song, as it’s his version of the song that seems to have influenced a plurality of subsequent versions. Lead Belly, née Huddie Ledbetter, did record about a half-dozen different versions of the track, some of them under the title “Black Girl,” just one of many traditional folk songs in his repertoire that he updated through a contemporary blues lens in the ’30s and ’40s. Just a few years earlier, bluegrass bandleader Bill Monroe recorded a similarly influential version of the song, employing the title “In the Pines,” which despite Nirvana’s revival of the song, is probably the most widely recognized title given to the haunting ballad. It’s also sometimes called “My Girl,” as it’s titled on streaming services on Thou’s Nirvana covers compilation, Blessings of the Highest Order—perhaps the least recognized title of them all, given here to a cover of a cover of a public domain folk ballad making it all the harder to untangle. Though it is absolutely brutal.

“In the Pines,” as we know it, doesn’t have one sole songwriter. Its various parts were written by various musicians more than a century ago, though its original author has never been recorded. The version(s) that we know today, more than 150 years after its origins, stems from two different songs, titled “In the Pines” and “The Longest Train,” the latter of which offers a glimpse at part of where the mystery takes place: Along a railroad. An early recording on wax cylinder in the 1920s merged the two songs—both dating back as far as the 1870s—bringing the construction of that railroad through a path between those woods, thus beginning what’s now one of the most enduring examples of an ever-changing folk song forensic scene.

Identifying the true version of the song, so much as there can actually be said to be one—a puzzle with no definite answer— is as much a mystery as the incident(s) that led the girl in the song to be in the pines, as well as who was decapitated or whether that even happens. It’s the Rashomon of folk songs.

In 1970, folklorist Judith McCulloh had found that there were 160 different permutations of “In the Pines,” writes Eric Weisbard in the New York Times in 1994, and in those different versions, we’re treated to different angles of the story. Lead Belly’s take on the track, a strong candidate for the definitive version but certainly not the original (by 70 years or so), paints a portrait without filling in every last detail; “My husband was a railroad man, killed a mile and a half from here,” he sings, “his head was found in a drivers wheel, and his body hasn’t never been found.” We don’t know the M.O., whether murder, suicide or simply a horrific accident, but we know enough that it was ghastly and violent. We also don’t know whether the girl being questioned (“Don’t lie to me…“) has been caught with another man, just that, “In the pines, in the pines/Where the sun don’t ever shine/I would shiver the whole night through.” And it’s hard not to feel that shiver on the other side of the speakers, in spite of or perhaps a result of Lead Belly’s understated delivery. The gravity of the situation is overwhelming—infidelity, grief and possibly murder—even if it takes a little hypothesizing on the listener’s part to piece together everything that happened.

In other artists’ hands, the story tends to change a bit. The Bill Monroe recording, for instance, omits the decapitation, and The Carter Family’s take on the song seems to remove the specter of death altogether, the lonesome weeping in the pines merely a result of lost love. In the version recorded by British beat group The Four Pennies in 1964 (which is a barnburner, for the record), we get a surprisingly more gruesome portrait: “She found his body all crushed and torn, under the twisted steel.” Some versions involve rape, others prostitution, and others still the desperate conditions of the Great Depression, though what none of them have is a bright road ahead or lives that haven’t somehow been shattered. Or to boil it down to the two elements that drew Lanegan to the song over 30 years ago, “betrayal and murder.”

The list of artists who have performed or recorded “In the Pines” is seemingly endless, and includes Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, The Louvin Brothers, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Joan Baez, Smog, Dave Van Ronk, Fantastic Negrito, and countless others. Some more upbeat and in a major key, others mimicking the howling wind between the trees, and some even darker than any contemporary songwriter could possibly conceive of. On its face it’s a simple song, but once you start to pull at its threads, the more unnerving it all becomes.

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” wasn’t the last song Nirvana recorded—that was “You Know You’re Right,” which went unreleased for another eight years—though in hindsight the blues cover is a strangely ominous way to close an already surreal prime-time moment for the group. It also seems to evoke a darker side to the backdrop against which grunge rose—the persistent gloom of the Pacific Northwest, a clime that graphic designer Art Chantry in the 1996 documentary Hype! said had more unsolved serial murders than any other region, and a landscape that inspired the supernatural darkness of a series like Twin Peaks. I’m not necessarily reading more into this than I should, other than connecting a few disparate dots—it’s a great song, and a great moment in a performance that tends to be remembered more for a pretty good but far less arresting Bowie cover. I just know that when Cobain screams the final refrain of “My girl! My girl! Don’t you lie to me!“, I somehow still manage to feel that shiver.

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