If I told you that Lead Belly, Rufus Wainwright, Nirvana, Tiny Tim, Dolly Parton, Bill Monroe, Hole, Dee Dee Ramone and the Grateful Dead all have performed a common song, you'd fairly assume that I had my facts confused and promptly call for my resignation. But despite the glaring absurdity of my contention, I'm proud to report that I am indeed correct (and if I'm not, blame Wikipedia!). "In the Pines," a/k/a "Black Girl" or "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" (author unknown), is an old Appalachia folk standard believed to have been written in the late 1800's, and is arguably one of the first true American "pop songs." The tune itself has an interesting history; an oral tradition of sorts, it has been passed down from generation to generation, almost always reconfigured and reinterpreted as if it were a game of musical "telephone." And like most American folklore -- especially that conceived in the South -- its true meaning remains somewhat of an enigma, though I suppose that is what keeps it so alluring after all these years. Take for example 2 of verses:
Black girl, black girl, don't lie to me,
Tell me where did you sleep last night?
In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines,
I shivered the whole night through.
My husband was a railroad man,
Killed a mile, and a half from here.
His head, was found, in a driver's wheel,
And his body hasn't never been found.
The theories about the song's origins are as wide-ranging as the artists who have performed it, though the consensus is that it involves: prostitution, decapitation, a locomotive train, a murder, and of course, a pine forest. Happy times, no? And while my intention here is not to interpret or analyze the song -- as I'm clearly not well-versed enough in the subject matter to do so -- I merely wanted to point out that even today, a song as simple as "In the Pines" continues to inspire and enchant us, with its inscrutable history and evocative lyrics.
As for the various renditions, my loyalties lie with the Lead Belly version popularized in the 1940's and the Nirvana version performed in 1993 for Mtv Unplugged (credited as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night"), which continues to mesmerize me since first hearing it upon its release. Cobain's shrieking vocals were particularly suited for this dark piece of American lore -- especially his last desperate gasps, which I think poignantly revived the spirit of this haunting masterpiece for years to come.
Lead Belly, "In The Pines" (circa 1944)
Nirvana, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," New York, New York (1993)