When Kurt Cobain let out the immortal howl that closes Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged’ in 1993, it was an emotional outpouring that measured the distance the song he was singing had travelled over 120 years. The song in question, of course, is Cobain’s take on Leadbelly’s 1944 recording, ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, also known as ‘In The Pines’:
“In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine, I shiver the whole night through.”
Busy being born
The origins and ownership of the song are lost to history. Such is the oral tradition of folk and blues music, many traditional favourites exist in the ether and are passed on via live performance and recordings across the decades. Claims have been made to suggest the structure we’re all familiar with originated when an unknown performer put together two songs (‘In The Pines’ and ‘The Longest Train’) somewhere in Appalachia way back in the 1870s, with Tennessee and Kentucky among the places to have primary source connections to the tune.
What’s it all about?
‘In The Pines’, in whatever form the song takes, is a murder ballad. Murder ballads date back to the days of William Shakespeare and the European tradition of street criers announcing gruesome news to the public. Often, this news was then set to a familiar tune to make shekels from sadness in the form of sheet music. These grim tales of rape and murder would then travel for the first time and become what we now know as ‘trad. Arr’ standards. This story fits with the tale of ‘In The Pines’ crossing to the new world with English, Scottish and Irish emigrants to the southern states of America in the 1800s.
Its lyrics have been reimagined countless times over the years – some tell tales of decapitation on a railway line (“….her head was caught in the driver’s wheel, her body I never could find…”), others focus on infidelity (“… now darlin, now darlin, don’t tell me no lie, where did you stay last night…”) whilst many highlight an emotional wilderness (“… my girl, my girl, where will you go, I’m going where the cold wind blows…”). Whatever the feeling in the soul of the singer, ‘In The Pines’ is a song that has traditionally attracted artists who walk the fine lines the song has consistently conjured up.
The first known recording of the song is by North Carolina banjoist Dock Walsh (The Carolina Tar Heels) and was released commercially in 1926. Nearly twenty years went by before bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe put his stamp on the tune in 1941 and the regional legend of ‘In The Pines’ began to become national notoriety.
With nearly 200 interpretations of the tune known to have been recorded, other influential Americana takes include records by The Louvin Brothers, Lead Belly, The Four Pennies, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan, Nirvana and Black Deer 2019 star Fantastic Negrito.
Interestingly, country music legend Monroe’s 40’s bluegrass version omits any mentions of death or violence and turns the tale of the train taking the singer’s girl away to one of farewell as opposed to forever. Blues hero Lead Belly’s take contains no such sweetness and digs deep into the emotional swagger associated with the traditional masculine response to a love gone wrong, while the original recording by the afore-mentioned Dock Walsh brings the lonesome whistle of the wilderness that dominates the air “in the pines” front and centre for the first time.
Did you know?
Some music scholars speculate Kurt Cobain’s definitive performance of the song was a cry for help in relation to the suicidal thoughts that led to his death in April 1994. “The way he delivered that song felt like he was foreseeing his own demise,” Eric Weisbard, Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama, has said. “However absurd that sounds, nonetheless I think that was a real experience that many people had watching it.”
What do you think?
The tension hanging in the air as Cobain methodically strums his big-bodied electro-acoustic guitar clashes with the ethereal calm of Lori Goldston’s cello, as acoustic bass and brushed drums try to provide a bed for the singer. As the melody rises and Cobain reaches that ice cold “shiver” at the song’s end, however, he refuses to lie down and disappears “the whole night through” into immortality…