Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“In The Pines,” AKA “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” AKA “Black Girl,” is a traditional Appalachian folk song, nearly a century and a half old, that encompasses elements of searing heartbreak, perceived betrayal, death (by decapitation in many cases), and murder. Not to mention the fact the the song title is named after a location where “the sun don’t ever shine” and “we shiver when the cold wind blows.”
Not exactly “Kumbaya,” right? Which is fortunate, because if this song had been about the warm and fuzzies, it never would have lasted to become the haunting classic it remains today.
There are two prestigious schools for “In The Pines (Where Did You Sleep Last Night)” run by two legendary principals, the larger-than-life Lead Belly and the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Both recorded very different versions of the song in the 1940s and 1950s.
Music historian Norm Cohen pointed out in his 1981 book Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong that the song came to consist of three frequent elements – a chorus about “in the pines,” a verse about “the longest train,” and a verse about a decapitation – but not all elements are present in all versions.
“This unique, moody, blues-style song from the Southern mountain country is like a bottomless treasure box of folk-song elements,” wrote James Leisy in his 1966 book The Folk Song Abecedary. “The deeper you dig, the more you find.”
Lead Belly’s version is a grisly tale that begins with conversation.
Man: “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me/Tell me where did you sleep last night.”
Girl: “In the pines, in the pines/Where the sun don’t ever shine/I would shiver the whole night through.”
Lead Belly sings on to give the listener more insight on the girl’s traumatic experience. “Her husband was a hard working man / Just about a mile from here / His head was found in a driving wheel / But his body never was found.”
Is the girl simply mourning her deceased husband, in the pines? Or is she indeed lying and in the arms of another man? The song leaves that decision up to the listener.
Lead Belly’s sound can be described as warbled, raw vocals accompanied by a waltzing guitar strum and occasional jolly riff. His demeanor is disturbingly aloof, which makes it downright terrifying. So much so that it can’t help you from thinking that he’s insinuating that there’s something more sinister going on behind the scenes that we are not privy to.
Bill Monroe’s bluegrass version shares lyrical similarities to Lead Belly’s take, but it’s much more instrumentally lush with the presence of fiddles and yodeling. It also includes a mysterious “longest train I’ve ever saw,” representing an eternal passage and the notion that “In The Pines” the train’s passengers (sometimes including the protagonist’s lost love) are on the road to oblivion. Bill croons, “I asked my captain for the time of day. He said he throwed his watch away.” Despite his more festive take, Bill Monroe still manages to add a bleak element.
Bill Monroe’s school gave way to numerous country versions, consisting of a softer, less morbid approach, with more of a “high lonesome” sound. These versions, covered by notables such as Dolly Parton and The Louvin Brothers, focus more on the heartbreak (“You caused me to weep / You caused me to mourn / You caused me to leave my home”) of the protagonist, “the longest train” and the cold winds in the pines, rather than the death-based story lines contained in most of the other covers of “In The Pines.”
But it was the School of Lead Belly that inspired Nirvana to perform arguably history’s greatest rendition of this song, under the title “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” on the posthumously released MTV Unplugged in New York. Kurt Cobain frequently cited Lead Belly as a major influence of Nirvana and gave Lead Belly songwriting credits in the liner notes of the 1994 album. This particular jaw-dropping performance inspired Neil Young to describe Cobain’s vocals during the final screamed verse as “Unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable.”
The Schools of Lead Belly and Bill Monroe are the pillars of the “In The Pines (Where Did You Sleep Last Night)” cover song kingdom, while Kurt Cobain occupies the throne. The following five covers are lesser-known renditions, but are delicious fruits of the kingdom’s labor.
Smog – In The Pines (Traditional cover)
Smog is Bill Callahan. And Bill Callahan is a true original. The baritone folk-singer/spoken word poet laureate delivers a minimalistic, matter-of-fact version, consisting of an periodic whistle, simple guitar waltz, perfectly placed strings, and Callahan’s deep, chesty, controlled voice. Callahan starts his 2005 cover with “the longest train,” speaks of his debilitating heartbreak, and makes no mention of death by decapitation, indicating that he attended the School of Bill Monroe.
Doc Watson – In The Pines (Traditional cover)
Another Monroe School attendee, Doc Watson incorporates a “high lonesome” sound in his playful 2007 version of “In The Pines.” Doc’s rendition stands out for two reasons. First, he makes a point of letting the audience know that he is on the verge of impersonating the cold wind in the pines, then delivers an alto-pitched blowing wind-like yodel. He does this periodically throughout the song. Second, he adds a verse stating that as a result of not listening to his mother, he is now enveloped in the heartbreak and anguish from losing his one and only love.
Joan Baez – In The Pines (Traditional cover)
Joan received valedictorian honors in 1963 while attending the School of Lead Belly. The all-powerful folk goddess brings nothing but a guitar and angelic voice when performing her “In The Pines.” Joan, with her generation-defining presence, keeps her “In The Pines” dark and mysterious by touching on all of the grisly details that Lead Belly originally brought to this iconic murder ballad.
Sir Douglas Quintet – In The Pines (Traditional cover)
This short, rollicking soul ballad from the late ’60s comes to us compliments of the School of Lead Belly. The Sir Douglas Quintet brings an edge to their “In The Pines” with a couple of ripping electric guitar riffs to accompany a consistent and creepy tambourine tap. Somber, almost scared vocal undertones, due to the gruesome content of the song, are ever-present. Doug Sahm exudes utter disbelief when singing about the fact the body of the decapitated head was missing, never to be found.
Grateful Dead – In The Pines (Traditional cover)
This IS your parents’ Grateful Dead, covering “In The Pines” in 1966. This is a time when the Dead were young and hungry, before “miracles” and nights spent frolicking on “Shakedown Street.” The heart and soul of the Dead’s rendition of “In The Pines” is the driving psychedelic organ, compliments of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. A young Jerry Garcia more than pulls his weight with his inspired, almost screaming vocals and flawless electric guitar. Due to references to “the longest train I ever saw” and the decapitated railroad worker, the Dead’s rendition is a hybrid of both the Lead Belly and Bill Monroe schools. This version is so inspired and fun, it makes you wonder why they didn’t perform it more often.
For more on the history and legacy of “In the Pines,” read this article from the New York Times.